Essex County Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, N.J. is a quaint day trip for New Jerseyans or visitors to the area. The kids had a blast running through fountains that were turned on to help people cool off, gawking at the sea lions (see above), and feeding the birds. Discover what you’ll experience should you make the journey to TBZ:
In the above sign, you’ll notice Family Fun Nights in the summer and ads for the Zoological Society of New Jersey. Encouraging guests to “have a wild day” was perfect for me and mine.The Turtle Back Zoo offers locals many opportunities to connect with nature. We were braving the zoo with three kids 5 and under. Indeed, it was wild. Frankly, the kids might have been wilder than the animals they were seeing.
The Charm of Turtle Back Zoo
Appropriately, the first animals we saw upon our visit to the Turtle Back Zoo were turtles. Actually, they were tortoises, but close enough. What fascinated the kids? The baby pooping right before their eyes. They found it downright hilarious. And we adults had the chance to sing, “Everybodyyyyy poopssss,” ala Dinosaur Train. My son was really looking forward to seeing the stars of Happy Feet, but there was a long penguin in the habitat, which had my sister the professional zookeeper concerned. Still, despite that disappointment, we charged on.
One of the unique aspects of the zoo is the interactive aviary. Guests are not allowed to touch the birds, which include parakeets (see photo below), but they can feed them. You can purchase sticks with birdseed on them and hold them out for the birds to come to you. The kids went wild. The birds were chirping directly in their ears and munching the food off the sticks that they held in their hands. My son and niece had grins as wide as the Hudson. My mom was another story. She had birds sitting on her feet and trying to fly up her leg because much of the bird seed lands on the ground. My sister-in-law and I had to maneuver the strollers with bird seeds on the wheels without rolling over an unsuspecting parakeet.
Sea lions and monkeys are always entertaining. A small petting zoo with all the usual suspects, including goats, rounded out the highlights. As we walked out of the gift shop on our way out of the zoo, a lovely peacock walked up to us and displayed his plumage despite the rain storm. The promise of giraffes existed when we went to the zoo, but they had not arrived yet. As of 2016, you can find them in the African Adventure.
What’s lovely about these little zoos is that they are not so overwhelming. The three kids actually amused themselves by observing the animals and taking in the details of the zoo. There was an elephant statue that they all climbed on to take a picture. Running through the fountains (see below) was not just for cooling off. It was also a memory in the making. They were dancing around without a care in the world, and it brought us all back to our own childhood. Isn’t that, in part, what a day at the zoo is all about?
In recent years, people have been tough on zoos and aquariums. The argument is that animals should not be locked up; instead, we should let them live in peace in nature and shut down these zoos. They have been talked about as outdated and decidedly unfriendly to all that is natural. I take a decidedly different position. It’s not just because I’m the sister of a zookeeper. Okay, that has something to do with it. She has educated me and continues to do so. But it’s also a result of my years as a self-proclaimed environmentalist.
Yep, I’ve been a tree hugger since the late 1980s when I read 50 Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth, which revolutionized my life. While I’m still not made of granola, I did help launch recycling in my town; in middle school, I actually spent my lunch periods analyzing garbage to determine how much could be recycled and how cost effective it would be. It worked, and I even won an American Legion award for my efforts. The reason I’m digressing is I want to show you that I have some street cred when it comes to this topic and that it’s not coming out of nowhere. Here are why families should consider getting zoo memberships:
1. SEEING IS BELIEVING
You can talk to kids about the world around them all you want. But until you show them what you’re talking about, they don’t always understand. Seeing animals, some of which are endangered or near extinction, helps connects kids with them. My sister has shared her love of animals with my son, niece, and nephew from when they were wee little ones. None of them are afraid. My son was the only one in his class on a recent trip to the farm, who was willing to pet a chicken and milk a cow. He now knows that the milk (which supports his milkaholism) comes from a cow, and he understands exactly the process of getting it. Besides making him more appreciative, he was able to talk to me about how the cows have to stay healthy for him to get his milk. This was extra amazing for him because he had delayed speech and is only really starting to communicate regularly with us now.
2. A CHANCE FOR EDUCATION
At the zoo, you’ll find plaques offering facts about the animals and sometimes even the plant life in an exhibit. My 6-year-old niece read every single one on our most recent visit. She learned about antelope and baboons, like the family in the photos here. A few zookeepers and volunteer educators stopped to see if we had questions and shared info, such as how the rhino’s horn is made of the same stuff as our nails. My niece also read a few quotes about why learning about animals is important. Basically, she decided she needs to understand animals, so she can recognize their place in our world and protect it. It’s a good lesson indeed. And that little lady will do it, I guarantee.
3. SUPPORT CONSERVATION
The money you spend on a membership helps maintain the zoo, the animals’ home, but it also helps pay for research and conservation efforts. My sister is a zookeeper in Florida, and she has traveled to help birds in the wild migrate or breed as part of her job. She also has friends who have helped save wildlife trapped in oil spills. There are all sorts of conservation projects in which zoos participate. They also make the habitats for each animal as close to nature as they can, which is in and of itself a conservation effort. It is not just a superficial means of re-branding zoos that have been criticized for locking up animals, even if that’s part of the motivation; it’s also a way to keep the animals and nature in balance and to improve the animals’ lives. This all costs money. Doing good ain’t cheap, folks.
4. MAKE MEMORIES
Disney commercials often warn parents that they have a limited number of years while their children are young to enjoy family trips all together. While the company’s motives are obviously to make a buck, it still holds true. The delight on the face of my child when he witnessed the ostrich’s racing one another or when he saw the baboons hugging one another was priceless. The fact that we were at the Boo at the Zoo event, so he and his cousins were in their costumes and I sometimes sported a witch’s hat made the day all the more fun. He was learning, we were bonding, and all the while we were just having fun.
5. SAVE MONEY
While a Disney trip could break the bank, a zoo membership could actually be affordable and it can save you money. I opted for the membership when we wanted to go to the Boo at the Zoo event at the Bronx Zoo because it was only a few dollars more than the cost of the total experience ticket for one day for each of us. In the end, I spent $175 (there was a $20 discount when I bought into the family premium offer). Of course, your local zoos membership fees may be different. You’ll have to check with each for prices. With the Bronx Zoo, for one year, my mom, husband, three kids, and me are covered for the total experience anytime we want to go. That means, we don’t have to pay for parking, entrance, or most of the extras, such as the monorail, butterfly garden, etc. In addition, admission to four other places – the New York Aquarium, Central Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, and Prospect Park Zoo – are covered. We did have to pay $7 per person for the camel rides. But the trip was still a bargain, and we received discounts in the souvenir shop and for food and drink purchases. For me, frankly, those broad smiles and precious pictures of the kids and animals already made it worth it, and our year of membership has only just begun.
You don’t know everything. I know it’s hard to believe. Nowadays, your little fingers have access to technology that contains all the world’s facts and thousands upon thousands of photos and video, and that leads you to think you’re all knowing and can judge just about anything.
News flash: You can’t believe everything you see on the Internet (or, I’m sad to say, the evening news) anymore. Yes, you witnessed video of a 3-year-old boy being cast about by a giant gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. Now, you’re certain the parents are neglectful, and the zoo is a protective agency of animal abusers, and planet Earth is threatened by their very existence. Oh, the evil forces in the world! Please note my sarcasm.
By now we’ve all seen the video of Harambe, a Western lowland gorilla, dragging a 3-year-old boy who fell into the animal’s home at the Cincinnati Zoo. Onlookers described the fact that the gorilla would not let the child go and had even thrown him in the air. The video we’ve all seen shows moments when the gorilla seemed to be doting on the child and, perhaps, trying to protect him.
Still, the zoo has a protocol when the unthinkable happens and a human, in this case a defenseless child, ends up in an enclosure with a dangerous animal. Harambe was shot and killed to save the boy. Since then, protestors have been calling for the mother of the child to be charged with negligence. Many say the zoo went too far in killing the animal, which is an endangered species. Also, many want to know how come the enclosure wasn’t strong enough to keep out a pre-schooler.
The thing about extremely strong, 400-pound animals is that we can’t possibly know what they are thinking. And human life trumps that of the animal. It’s simple. The zoo did what it had to do. This rush to judgment has to stop. I have a unique perspective on this subject. I’m a mother to a 4-year-old boy, who spends most days with his cousins, a 3-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl, and me. And we’re all related to my sister, who is a zookeeper at a prominent zoo (not in Cincinnati). As a result, we know lots of other zookeepers, with whom we’ve spent significant time. That’s why I think the rest of us need to knock it off, and quit crucifying everyone.
Anyone who has spent any time with young boys knows that they can be curious, adventurous, and fearless. While those might be good qualities to have if you’re planning on going into hedge funds someday, they can be dangerous early on in life. I spend countless hours each week preventing my son and nephew from doing things that could get them or my niece killed. Now that’s a fact that most parents recognize. Let’s be honest with ourselves; we are human and we can get distracted, especially if we’re caring for more than one child. I’m not negligent or uncaring or abusive to my child, but I could easily imagine a similar scenario to the one that this terrified mother lived out in Cincinnati. I’m with her. Accidents happen, and I would have wanted the zoo to do the same if it was my kid, and it could have been my kid or nephew. I have no doubt.
Questions about the zoo’s responsibility seem more complicated. How on Earth could a 3-year-old get passed a secure enclosure at an accredited zoo, right? Well, the enclosure met the standards for accreditation, according to interviews with experts on CNN, and reports suggest the zoo has a reputation for taking any threats to the safety of both humans and animals seriously. Perhaps, this debate will be born out in a courtroom. Regardless, the child had to get under steel bars and passed various plant life and fall into the drop where the water is. It’s not like the zoo left the door open to their house for anyone to walk right in. If the enclosure was so unsafe, why hadn’t this happened before?
This incident has sparked outrage among animal activists, who claim zoos are the work of the devil. This idea has been rampant, especially in the aftermath of Blackfish, the controversial documentary about Sea World and its killer whale program. The media has really disappointed me in its coverage of these issues (just like they’ve disappointed me for just about everything else). Well-meaning people all over the Internet have only gotten half the story.
Yes, back in the day zoos captured animals in awful, uncaring ways. They don’t do that anymore. You can learn about how the 17-year-old Harambe found his way to the Cincinnati Zoo in an article that outlines the mourning the keeper who raised him is experiencing. Note that the keeper was from another zoo, and the zoos move animals for a variety of reasons that include an ability to care for them or breeding as was the case here.
Many caring people have suggested that zoos are awful because the animals are not in their native habitats and are locked up like prisoners. That might be true. But the animals that are in zoos today have had generations of their family in captivity. If you freed them tomorrow and brought them back to their “homes,” they would likely perish. The story of Keiko, the whale in the Free Willy films, is proof of that.
Zookeepers treat the animals under their care as their children. They are nerdy scientists, who usually care about the future of the environment more than those of us wielding a protest sign or a blog or a signature on a petition. Often, their life’s work revolves around protecting these animals and helping them breed, so they don’t go extinct. The breeding programs and conservation efforts at zoos are a necessary part of the effort to save our planet. All of us can take responsibility for the damage that has been done. At least, there are people trying to right our wrongs.
It is sad that Harambe had to be killed. It is sad that the world lost an endangered animal, who may have been able to produce more of his kind. It is sad that the child suffered serious injuries when he fell into the enclosure and was dragged. But Harambe’s death is no one’s fault. Can’t we accept that sometimes an accident is no one’s fault?
Let us not forget that this story has a happy ending because the child was saved. The gorilla program at the Cincinnati Zoo will continue, says the zoo’s director. I, for one, will continue to take my son and niece and nephew to zoos because it is there that my sister developed her love for animals. It is there that we can educate ourselves about the other creatures that roam with us. It is there that we can recognize our arrogance as humans and do something to change our world for the better.
The Bergen County Zoo, part of Van Saun Park in Paramus, has always been among my favorite places. As a kid, my mom would gather up our cousins and take us all there for a visit with the animals and a picnic. We would buy a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken (back then, it wasn’t called KFC) and eat and frolic in the playground before strolling through the adorable zoo and taking a train ride. Now, it’s a joy to take my son and niece and nephew (and other young family members) for some good old-fashioned fun.
That’s why I was among the first to register for the zoo’s Easter Egg Hunt, which happened on Saturday. To my shock and delight, the entire event was free. There was an egg hunt (5 eggs per child), face painting, pictures with the Easter Bunny, story time with a live bunny, frog origami making, and cookies and juice at no charge, not even an admissions fee. Even though there were some big lines to participate in these activities, the kids had a blast. Baby Boy played with the plastic, jumping bunnies he found in his Easter eggs while he waited to have a duck painted on his arm. And he happily devoured an oatmeal raisin cookie while taking a walk through the zoo. Running buffalo, a friendly horse, and a nesting goose were among the highlights. Afterward, we headed to the picnic area, where I hid more eggs that I had filled at home, and we ate homemade everything – chicken wings, macaroni and cheese, string bean and potato salad, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the shape of bunnies. Jumping in the pile of leaves near our picnic table was a bonus that this mamma didn’t see comin’. You can check out the animals we encountered below. And consider heading to the local zoo yourself.
What’s great about visiting the Van Saun County Park in Bergen County, New Jersey is that you don’t even have to enter the zoo to have fun. You can pay a small fee to take a ride on the train or on the carousel. And you can picnic on the grounds just outside the zoo for the cost of whatever food you bring. Nearby, there is also a playground that is free to those who enter. It is worth mentioning that you can take in the historic Washington Spring Garden or even go fishing. The most exciting bonus for the kids are the pony rides, which also cost little. In fact, even if you go to the zoo (See photo album of zoo), you can still have a very affordable day out with the family. Sounds like fun, fun, fun to me! For more suggestions on where to visit, consult Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012).