Authored by Amy Greene, nature centers director for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS).
The Belle Isle Nature Center reopened in fall 2022 with a whole new interior designed to connect people of all ages with local flora and fauna. It has been thrilling to be open again! As we roll into the winter season, let’s take some time to reflect on the past few months and appreciate our greatest feature — our guests!
Having guests in our building has brought the heart and soul back into the Nature Center. Of course, part of the rhythm of that heartbeat includes the amazing animals, their caregivers and the rest of the staff, but it has truly been a joy to see people exploring the new exhibits and habitats. During the first two days we opened, the golf course across the road hosted a Special Olympics event for the Detroit Public Schools Community District, and we had the serendipitous opportunity to host 600 children immediately upon reopening. It brought tears to my eyes to see kids learning, exploring and belonging in the natural world.
It is truly all about connections — our older visitors, who are well beyond school-aged, will often come across one of the habitats featuring local wildlife, turn to someone and share an anecdote that starts with “I remember…!” Hearing stories of how people used to sit on a dock and look for water snakes or turn over leaves to find frogs reinforces the connections between past and present, nature and human. Every day, I look forward to reading the responses people leave on our community feedback wall that detail their personal connections to where they find nature in their own neighborhoods. Hand-written and hand-drawn notes share experiences about squirrels, groundhogs, butterflies, birds, trees and weeds in backyards, schoolyards, parks and places people visit.
Tunnels connect things, too!
It has been exciting to observe people of all ages explore the many tunnels here at the Nature Center. The Young Learner Space features an exploration through an ant or worm tunnel, right down under the crack of a sidewalk. What can you find in there that is part of nature? What did humans leave behind? Can you store food, dig tunnels and spend some time in part of our everyday environment that is often unnoticed yet crucially important? The tunnel under the treefrog habitat offers yet another interesting perspective, as guests can pop up into acrylic “bubbles” right in the habitat for an insider’s view. The space is also home to a replica Detroit sewer tunnel, which offers a walk-through experience showcasing how animals adapt to living in spaces with human infrastructure and how our actions, like keeping trash clear from drains, can have an impact.
Through the tunnels, hallways and habitats, the focus on shared spaces and connection to place-based nature is apparent. Each mural at the Belle Isle Nature Center represents an actual location where those species of animals were spotted in the city of Detroit. It is a powerful feeling to see our guests interact with the features here that provide opportunities to explore their own power and place in the natural world. These exhibits help our guests recognize their impact and belonging as individuals who share their space with other living things.
In the last three months, more than 18,000 people have already visited the Belle Isle Nature Center — that’s a lot of connections! After the long, quiet days of the pandemic closure, and the loud and bustling days of the renovation construction, this everyday simplicity — hearing all those footsteps through the hallways, exclamations of awe, the buzz of childhood questions and the curious conversations about connection to the spaces we share with wildlife and wild places – is truly the beat that keeps our pulse pumping. It’s the best part of the Belle Isle Nature Center!
Ready to experience it for yourself?
Visit us any day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. – the Belle Isle Nature Center and its programs are free! With unpredictable winter weather, the nature center provides a climate-controlled oasis where you can still get that great outdoor feeling. The cozy stone fireplace and birdwatching window are fan favorites this time of year. You can also embrace the cold and join us for Winterfest from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 28. Guests will have the opportunity to trek through the trails on snowshoes, make a feeder to care for birds in the winter, learn about animal adaptations and winter survival, and much more. Night owls will also enjoy our monthly Nature at Night series that features different native nocturnal species. This Friday, Jan. 20, local partners from the DNR Outdoor Adventure Center and Detroit Audubon will be on-site with fun activities, such as a guided hike to search of owls, followed by an outdoor fire to warm you up. Follow our Facebook page to stay connected with us and your fellow nature lovers. Just like the seasons, there is always something new to experience at the Belle Isle Nature Center.