Historic zoo cages decaying in park

January 17, 2014
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Century-old zoo cages for bears in Franklin Park, abandoned for decades, are decaying—the iron bars either collapsing or being stolen for scrap—with no signs of security or repair.

Large sections of ironwork from the ornate stone-and-metal cages near Seaver Street, known as the Bear Dens, have gone missing as recently as last fall. But it is unclear whether that is from theft, rust or both.

According to City Parks and Recreation spokesperson Jacquelyn Goddard, there were reports of iron bars being stolen from the Bear Dens last October. That instance was referred to Boston Police, she told the Gazette. There have been no reports made to the Parks Department since.

An anonymous complaint to the City’s CitizensConnect service on Jan. 6 noted some missing bars and called it theft, but did not mention witnessing the crime.

“This is a city landmark and historic structure and needs to be protected!!! Please help!” the complaining citizen wrote.

Boston Police said they referred the complaint to the State Police, which did not return a Gazette phone call. It is unclear why the State Police were notified.

But Christine Poff, executive director of the Franklin Park Coalition (FPC), a group that organizes park volunteers and programs, said she does not think theft is involved.

“We don’t believe the scrap metal was being ‘harvested.’ When large pieces come loose or fall down we often have volunteers pull them out of the area for the Parks Department to pick up,” Poff told the Gazette.

She added that the last big section to come down was in November.

A Gazette visit this week found the Bear Dens missing many bars and often entire sections of the cage structure. There were no signs of recent bars being cut or removed, and no fallen bars on the ground. The bars still in place did not look loose. Large sections of the wall were marked gray with painted-over graffiti.

The Bear Dens originally held Franklin Park Zoo’s first exhibit: bears brought from Germany and Yellowstone National Park. The exhibit opened Oct. 3, 1912, to crowds of 10,000 people. It includes a stone staircase sweeping up to the exhibit cages, its walls decorated with bear images, including a City of Boston seal held aloft by two upright bears.

The Bear Dens are some distance away from the main zoo, which continues to operate. The bear exhibit closed in the 1970s and have fallen into disrepair, despite various reuse plans.

“It’s one of those forgotten corners of our parks,” former FPC director Richard Heath told the Gazette this week. “I’m surprised there are any [iron bars] left. It just shows the lack of real oversight of the park.”

A detailed history of the site by FPC member Julie Arrison, available on the FPC website, states that the Parks Department issued “General Plans” for Franklin Park in 1980 and 1990 that included ideas for an interpretive area, a stop on a nature trail, a playground or a snack bar for the Bear Dens.

There are no plans in the foreseeable future to implement any of the proposed suggestions, Arrison states.

For more about the Bear Dens and Franklin Park, see franklinparkcoalition.org.

Two bears play in the Bear Dens in 1929 in this historic photo. (Photo Courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Two bears play in the Bear Dens in 1929 in this historic photo. (Photo Courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

A photo sent anonymously to the City’s CitizenConnect service on Jan. 6 shows a large area of missing bars at the Bear Dens. (Photo from City of Boston website)

A photo sent anonymously to the City’s CitizenConnect service on Jan. 6 shows a large area of missing bars at the Bear Dens. (Photo from City of Boston website)

A large section of bars is seen missing from one of the bear cages in Franklin Park on Jan. 14.

A large section of bars is seen missing from one of the bear cages in Franklin Park on Jan. 14.

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