Detroiter thinks Belle Isle could use an alpaca ranch

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

David Shock wants to bring cuteness to Belle Isle in the form of 200 alpacas. But the Detroit resident says he’d settle for a couple dozen, to start.

Shock recently launched his campaign for an “Alpaca Land” on social media and says he’s been reaching out to alpaca ranchers, potential stakeholders, the state and the Detroit Zoological Society to test the waters. The 39-year-old says his vision calls for the creation of a nonprofit that would transform the island’s former nine-hole golf course into a volunteer-run nature preserve.

The effort has already generated attention with emails and support flowing in from people across the country, he says.

“I want to make sure people would even be interested,” said Shock, 39, who lives in the city’s McDougall-Hunt neighborhood. “It’s been a great way to get feedback.”

Shock, director of East Coast sales for Kalamazoo-based Water Street Coffee, says he chose alpacas because they are gentle animals that could provide a year-round attraction. In addition, they are relatively simple to shelter. Other nearby Michigan ranches are in Howell and Grosse Ile Township.

The ranch, he said, could get its start as a pilot, offering a petting farm, gift shop and classroom.

“Detroit is a city of firsts,” said Shock, adding his parents have long had farmland, cultivating corn, other vegetables and soybeans. “I want it to be our own unique city.”

The 982-acre island is already home to the Belle Isle Nature Zoo, which is operated by the nonprofit Detroit Zoological Society. Among its features, the zoo has native and migratory birds, amphibians, fish and fallow deer. It’s a site for educational field trips and outreach for schools and community groups.

Patricia Janeway, a spokeswoman for the zoological society, said Shock made the zoo aware of his idea. Since admission to the nature zoo is free, it doesn’t appear to pose a conflict, she said.

Janeway added that she’s unaware of any proposals similar to Shock’s, but the state Department of Natural Resources would have to approve such a plan.

But the DNR says the idea is just that — an idea. Currently, priorities on the island are focused on master planning and enhancing the existing infrastructure, says Ron Olson, the DNR’s parks and recreation division chief.

Officials received the informal proposal, but are not considering it, he said.

“Our big objective here is we’re looking to try to restore Belle Isle. We are a long way from trying to create new things,” Olson said. “We have to be judicious and cautious about how we create park space.”

The state assumed a 30-year lease of the island on Feb. 10, 2014, under an agreement reached by Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit’s former emergency manager, Kevyn Orr.

Under state management, the island has undergone many aesthetic changes. Workers have focused attention on restoring picnic tables, chipping hazardous trees, reforesting and revamping comfort stations. Upgrades on the west end of the island have featured widened bike paths and trails and additional parking.

At the same time, the Belle Isle Conservancy has focused on strategic planning and a cultural campus plan centered on the island’s aquarium and conservancy.

If the Belle Isle concept doesn’t pan out, Shock says he’ll scout out other locations in Detroit.

“The opportunity is there,” he said. “We need to do things outside of the box that are a little unconventional.”