This zoo in middle-of-nowhere Michigan is unlike anything you've ever seen

Owners had early struggles, but persevered to make dream a reality

By Keith Dunlap - Graham Media Group

The GarLyn Zoo in Naubinway, Mich. offers visitors a chance to see exotic animals in a setting of woods and pine trees. Keith Dunlap/GMG

NAUBINWAY, Mich. - This is like your typical stroll in the woods. 

There are towering pine trees, mulch trails and sightings of birds, bugs, chickens, camels, llamas and alligators. 

Wait a minute.

Camels, alligators and llamas in the middle of the woods, living underneath pine trees?

Believe it or not, such a place exists in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula. 

And it's been around for almost a quarter-century. This place is the fulfillment of a couple’s dream -- and it's anything but your typical stroll in the woods. 

A bear-ish start

As they were living in an unfinished garage in the middle of a frozen tundra and had to sell a prized possession just to survive the winter months, it was easy for Gary and Lynn Moore to ask themselves one question: "What were we thinking?"

"Oh yeah," Gary Moore said. "We were wondering if we should have sold everything."

After growing up in southeast Michigan their entire lives, in 1993, the Moores decided to sell their home in suburban Detroit to pursue a dream in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and it took a while to see that vision come to fruition.

In their second year in the Upper Peninsula, the two had to sell their pickup truck in order to feed themselves and their animals during the winter.

Four years after that, they were still living in that unfinished garage and trying to survive the harsh winters.

So, what gives?

On peacock wings and prayers

Ultimately, after buying a 30-acre parcel of land near a small town called Naubinway, the Moores finally got to start going after their dream, of building a zoo in the middle of the woods.

When many people think of zoos, they think of them as being in big cities that are more accessible, and having funding from a corporations or governments.

But starting a private zoo in the middle of a forest in a remote location? That might have seemed batty.

However, it was the Moores' vision.

Lovers of animals their whole lives, Gary Moore said he has owned peacocks since he was in high school.

"We liked the area and we didn't want to be by a big city," he said. "Some of the animals were ones I had. We kind of thought we were (going) to buy a hotel and have (the animals) behind the hotel for people (to view). That was the original idea. But then we just said (we'd) build a zoo."

Thus, the concept of the GarLyn Zoo was born. The name GarLyn combines the first three letters of the first names of Gary and Lynn. 

And slowly but surely, the Moores did it -- first housing the pygmy goats, pigs, pheasants, peacocks and sika deer that they already had with them before moving on to some of the other animals.

The first six years were about building the enclosures, the barn and a gift shop, and, of course, getting the word out to the public that there was a place in the middle of the woods where people could visit exotic animals. 

As the zoo developed, other animals, such as wolves, bears, cougars, bobcats, otters, reindeer, bison and alligators, were brought in through trades with other zoos or donations. 

Eventually, the public not only took notice of the zoo, but as it turned out, people loved it. 

After all, there aren't many places where you can walk through mulch-lined trails in the middle of a forest and view exotic animals, such as a camel who is eating underneath a pine tree. 

There also aren't many places where the odor of zoo animals is overpowered by the aroma of those thousands of surrounding pine trees. 

"We get all kinds of reactions to it," Gary Moore said. "They can't believe we have as much back here as we do. They all think it's just one little spot."

A bull-ish future

These days, the Moores aren't living in an unfinished garage.

They now live in a log cabin on a property adjacent to the zoo, and next year, the zoo will celebrate its 25th year in business. 

Gary Moore said the GarLyn Zoo has grown to where it sees 30,000 to 35,000 visitors each year in the six months it is open. According to published reports, the Detroit Zoo had more than 1.5 million visitors in 2017 and the Houston Zoo welcomed more than 2.5 million in 2016. 

Moore said the animals stay at GarLyn year-round and some are housed in buildings when the weather gets too cold in the middle of winter.

There is plenty of room on the property to expand, going forward, and Moore said the next addition is likely to be a parakeet house, where people can feed the birds.

"People seem to really love them," Moore said. 

Even though next year will mark a milestone, Moore said no special celebrations or promotions have been planned as of yet.

"We haven't really thought about it," he said. "We're pretty laid back."

Whatever celebrations take place, they won't be any bigger than the fact that the Moores can look back and say they have come a long way from living in an unfinished garage and selling their pickup truck to make ends meet. 

As difficult as the pursuit was initially, their dream is alive and well after almost 25 years. 


 

Graham Media Group 2018