Outside the fences: the rewilding of Detroit viewed from a prison

Outside the fence, the tom turkey jumped up on the stump, rock, or whatever piece of junk was back there to elevate him above the weeds, spread his feathers and gobbled away impressive and noisy, and all the more so as it was happening just a few feet away from the fences of a state prison in the City of Detroit.

The year was 2010, and I had just been returned to this particular prison after being transferred out in 2005 and taking a near 5-year tour of the Michigan prison system, from Kincheloe in the Upper Peninsula to Ionia and St. Louis in the approximate center of the state. Over the course of which, I did manage to see my fair share of wildlife, which was to be expected when you are plunked down next to a woods or farm fields in some isolate area.

Having grown up and spent the greater part of my 57 years in the Motor City, I was very familiar with the neighborhood. In fact, prior to catching this case in 1998, I was working no more than ten blocks away. At that time the sum total of local wildlife, besides various small birds and rabbits living in the nearby cemeteries, consisted of a pair each of red tail hawks and snow owls that would stop by in the Spring and Autumn to fest on the rats inhabiting the local Coney Island. When it was torn down, the rats left, and the hawks and owls stopped coming.

I first arrived at this particular prison in 2003 and was pleasantly surprised to see that the pair of red tail hawks stopped here to feast on the large population of pigeons, fattened up on bread fed to them by prisoners leaving the chow hall. However, there wasn’t much else in the way of wildlife to be seen, except some passing geese and sea gulls, plus a couple of pheasants, mourning doves, and rabbits living in the saplings and brush growing alongside the railroad tracks.

That has dramatically changed. Upon returning here in 2010, I found a veritable explosion in the local wildlife population. There were now at least a half dozen pheasants, over a dozen mourning doves, and numerous rabbits, all living along the railroad tracks in the saplings turned into trees and brush. Moreover, there was a flock of turkeys living in the brush and swallows, neither of which I had ever seen in the city before. The hawks were still around and I even saw a fox last year. The guards have told me that they’ve seen skunks (I’ve smelled them), possums, raccoons, wild dogs, and even coyotes outside the fences.

No doubt the animals are using the rarely used railroad tracks as a corridor to more into and around the ruins of Detroit, where the only businesses that seem to be left are junkyards and prisons and block upon block of homes sit vacant and derelict. At least, in this neighborhood anyway.

That being the case, I imagine it is only a matter of time before I hear the coyotes howling at night and see my first Motor City deer, aside from the little Formosa deer that have run wild on Belle Isle in the Detroit River for years. All of which, gives me some hope for the future of the planet. If the animals can survive here, in the toxic ruins of a former industrial center, they can survive anywhere and that goes for us Motor City humans too!