In a forgotten corner of a very popular public park on Key Biscayne are the ruins of the city’s old zoo. Now inhabited by the occasional biker, alligators (at least according to the signs), roaming peacocks, and untold armies of iguanas scuttling through the brush, the Crandon Park Zoo ruins are a monument to the wisdom of building an animal attraction just feet from the water on a hurricane-prone island.
In 1948, the caravan of a traveling animal show broke down (or went out of business) in the Miami area. The city, which had recently acquired land on Key Biscayne, purchased two black bears, three monkeys, and a goat, who became the inaugural residents of the city’s first public zoo. Over time, many, many more animals and attractions were added—up to 1,200 animals at the zoo’s peak, including chimps, giraffes, and lions, as well as a miniature railroad that ran around the perimeter.
But this was the mid-20th century, and zoo conditions were a fair bit worse than what is considered standard today. Think of a polar bear, in South Florida, in a steel cage, with a hot tub-sized pool to keep cool. Concerns about the welfare of the animals began to grow, especially in 1956, when Hurricane Betsy slammed the coast, and more than 250 animals in the zoo died. High waters drowned many animals in their enclosures. The city began plans for a larger, more protected zoo, which finally opened in 1980. A decade later the area reopened as a botanical garden, but few beachgoers seem to have noticed.
The park presents wide paths and a pleasant strolls that takes you past large concrete and coral block walls and water features, including several small lakes and a canal, that were once part of larger outdoor enclosures. There are also several buildings and a prominent arch that were the bases for cages, which you’re free to climb in and around. (The peacocks do, too.)