The Shade Swamp Sanctuary was developed during the 1920s and 1930s from several land acquisitions. The approximate 800-acre preserve contained the “Farmington Zoo.” Originally created as a wildlife rehabilitation center and a sanctuary for animals it became a hospital for injured animals. Once healed they were released back to their wildlife habitats. The animals in the zoo consisted of birds, wolves, and bears. The Sanctuary (zoo) was also set up with a breeding program of raccoons for hunters. The State Board of Fisheries and Game made the Sanctuary (zoo) a state rabbit farm. The WPA worked on several projects within the Sanctuary (zoo). It built cages and dens for the wildlife and landscaped the Bird and Animal area. In 1934, the CCC built a wooden shelter for the sanctuary.
Even though, the Shade Swamp Sanctuary planned for a natural type of environment it only had a brief history. In 1933, the Hartford Courant reported a concern with the lack of funds that would end the zoo. However, even with the financial concerns, the sanctuary demonstrated a popular place to view animals by the public. The Courant reported that within a few years thousands of people had visited the Sanctuary. Groups visited and assisted the Sanctuary.
A group of 27 boys from Middletown took part in improving the Sanctuary. They were part of the Connecticut State Nature League. The boys assisted the State board of Fisheries and Game in improving the sanctuary. They added 25 new markers for the various trees and shrubs. The purpose of the boys’ work was Sanctuary beautification. The animals in the “zoo” were believed to consist of deer, raccoons, bobcats, skunks, hawks, pheasants, swamp quail, and other species. Groups, like carnivals, contacted the zoo to rid themselves of exotic animals, such as monkeys, alligator and even a baby giraffe. However, the giraffe story has never been verified.
The Zoo closed in 1938 and by the end of the Great Depression the breeding program was terminated. The State Board of Fisheries and Game ended the wildlife exhibit due to issues of funding. The wildlife Sanctuary continued until its abandonment during the 1960s. The introduction of Interstate 84 reduced the traffic on Route 6 causing less interest in the trail and its buildings. Occasionally groups like teachers and youth leaders used the sanctuary for events.
The National Register of Historic Places added the Sanctuary’s shelter to its list on September 4, 1986. Unfortunately, the shelter has fallen into disrepair. The project had great promise but when one drives by it now there is little to be seen. There is a small dirt parking area, overgrown weeds with rusted old cages as reminders of a forgotten “zoo.” It is a wildlife preserve for wildlife and plants. There is much more to learn about The Shade Swamp Sanctuary and Nature Trail with its past and hopefully a revitalized future.