The Damned Story: Over the decades, all manner of home, settlement and structure has been swallowed up by Connecticut’s woodlands. From Gay City State Park to Little Genesee and Cunningham Tower to Gungywamp, the state’s forests have claimed dozens of once-prominent features.
What’s even more interesting is how many of these locations are so close to public view but are never noticed.
Take the case of the “abandoned zoo” site in Farmington. Located on busy Route 6, hundreds of motorists drive by the former Shade Swamp Sanctuary every day, never guessing that the creepy remnants of an animal sanctuary are less than 50 yards away.
But then again, it was created in part to be a roadside wildlife attraction, so it makes sense that it’s so close to the road.
In 1926, the state of Connecticut acquired the initial 140 acres of Shade Swamp as a donation from Walter W. Holmes. Over time, the adjacent land was acquired, making for the 800-acre site it is today.
In 1934, the Connecticut Department of Fish and Game opened the Shade Swamp Sanctuary, a wildlife management area where injured birds and quadrupeds were cared for before being released back into the wild. Small steel cages and pens were built, some with stonework dens to give denizens shelter.
In addition to tending to injured animals, the breeding of raccoons (for sportsmen to hunt) was undertaken at the sanctuary, as were experiments in the propagation of cottontail rabbits. The sanctuary was also year-round home to all sort of local endangered and rare critters.
According to a 2009 Hartford Courant article by Peter Marteka:
With words like “sanctuary” and “zoo” being mentioned in the 1930s, many people wanted to bring all sorts of wildlife to the area. Monkeys, alligators, bears and parrots were taken to the sanctuary with unfulfilled hopes of finding them a new home. According to a 1936 artile in The Courant, the owner of a carnival stranded in a nearby town wanted to leave a young giraffe in the care of the sanctuary.
The majority of the breeding experiments were ended in the late 1930s, and the site was officially abandoned by the state in the 1960s.
As like with anything left unattended in the great outdoors, the woods will eventually claim it. Now, the only wildlife that live here are chipmunks, squirrels, birds and all other small forest creature that have nestled in and around the empty, rusted cages.
Our Damned Experience: We left the kids behind and visited Shade Swamp Sanctuary and the abandoned zoo in early Spring 2016. It was early enough in the season that most of the cages weren’t overgrown with seasonal vegetation and were easy to spot.
The zoo is about a two-minute stroll from the parking area, so calling it a “hike” is sort of like referring to this spot as a “zoo”—may be a bit of overzealous description. The remnants of metal cages line both sides of the path; smaller ones on the eastern side and larger ones that seemed to incorporate blue wooden structures on the west side.
Considering how many years it’s been since the majority of the enclosures were constructed, it is surprising how many of the structures were in recognizable condition, particularly the smaller cages. As you can see in the photo gallery (below), the majority of the stonework arches (dens?) seem perfectly intact. It could be that the surrounding pine trees provided shelter and helped to reduce the lower-growing vegetation that would more quickly destroy the structures.
Still, a few former pens have been decimated by vandals or the forest itself—fallen trees have done a decent amount of damage, and years of rugged New England weather have made for a lot of rusted and rotted sections.
The whole site occupies no more than a few thousand square feet.
Yes, we did go inside a few of the cages—sort of creepy and not for everyone.
Behind many of the dens are rectangular, concrete-lined openings in the ground (maybe for feeding?). Each, is only about a foot wide by a foot-and-a-half long, and the “drop” into the den below is about two feet.
Not surprisingly, we didn’t see anything unusual—a few birds, a chipmunk or two. No lurking ghosts of lions or tigers or bears, oh my!
If You Go: The 800-acre Shade Swamp Sanctuary in on the north side of Route 6 (Scott Swamp Road) in Farmington, just east of New Britain Avenue, just behind the rustic, dilapidated wooden shelter built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934. Like most nature areas and hiking areas, it is open from dawn to dusk.
About 50 yards from the road you’ll see a bench and a sign that says, “Blue Trail,” a 1.5-mile loop if you choose to do a full hike. Follow the trail to the left and around a little bend to the right, and about 15 yards past that you’ll see the first cages. Seriously, if you walk more than three minutes, you’ve somehow passed it. Essentially, it’s about 10 yards behind the bench and sign.
A few words of caution: We noticed there was a bit of poison ivy around some of the cages, so try to stay on the main path if you visit during the summer months. Oh, and there’s plenty of mosquitoes and other flying pests, so plan accordingly.
Again, if you venture off the path to explore and go behind the cages, beware of the rectangular openings in the ground—a wrong step certainly won’t kill but you might end up with a few nasty scrapes and bruises.
Also, with the number of rusted, broken metal cages around, we would recommend that your tetanus immunizations are up to date.