Editor's Note: Many zoos in the U.S. have closed their bird exhibits, to protect animals from a recent outbreak of avian influenza, which has been killing birds across the country.
Bruce Springsteen once dubbed the Garden State "Jungleland."
He was not referring to an actual jungle, of course, rather singing about electrically charged Jersey nights. Nonetheless, you don't have to drive very far to escape to the jungles of the Garden State, where you can find tamarins chattering in trees.
Our state has many zoos that are home to hundreds of exotic animals, offering a chance to walk on the wild side.
By visiting these zoos, patrons have not only the opportunity to see species they will never see in their own backyards, but also a way to support the many conservational efforts AZA-accredited (American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums) zoos undertake to save and protect endangered species.
"Conservation is going to take each and every one of us. It’s not just a researcher or someone in a lab, it's every person on the planet that needs to come together to impact animal species and the ecosystems they rely on," Turtle Back Zoo Director Jillian Fazio said.
To support ecosystems around the world, and have a fun day with your family this summer, consider a trip to these New Jersey zoos, from West Orange to Cape May:
The Cape May County Zoo was created in 1978 within the Cape May County Park. It was dedicated on May 6, 1978. In the beginning, it featured a limited number of animals, including an African lion, primates (spider monkeys), various barnyard animals, and New Jersey wildlife animals. The zoo has grown considerably since it opened. Today the zoo features about 550 animals representing 250 species.
Biggest attractions: The giraffes, zebras, river otters and “big cats” are some of the zoo’s most popular inhabitants.
A popular destination, the “World of Birds” walk-through aviary is temporarily closed to the public for the safety of the birds because of a highly pathogenic avian influenza strain spreading along the East Coast ("bird flu").
Earth Day Celebration, Conservation Day, Night Walks, Princess & Pirate Day, Boo at the Zoo, Zoo Yoga, Easter ExtravaganZoo, Santa’s Tree Lighting Celebration and Dreamnight are among the zoo's special events.
Visitors are invited to ride the wildlife carousel, open on weekends in the spring and fall, weather permitting. From June 19 through Labor Day, it will operate seven days a week. Tickets are available in the Zoovenirs shop. On your way out of the zoo, visit the photo booth for a souvenir penny.
The zoo also offers guided tours and animal encounters for a fee.
If children have some energy left after visiting the zoo, plan to stop by the park’s playgrounds and picnic areas, which are just outside the zoo entrance. The county park also features nature trails, disc golf, pavilion and gazebo rentals, a fishing pond and a Tree to Tree Aerial Adventure Park. Details are available on the website.
Amenities: The park has several food and drink options (outside food is not allowed except for baby food and water) including various kiosks and the Safari Café. A new Safari Café was scheduled to open summer 2021, but a new opening date has not been announced.
The Lion’s Den Gift Shop, just outside the zoo entrance, has gifts, souvenirs and an ATM available.
The zoo also has a Zooveniers gift shop, which is open “seasonally.” Visitors may purchase tickets for the wildlife carousel at this shop.
Bathrooms with changing tables are available.
Free wifi is available in the zoo.
Parking: Plenty of free parking is available.
Accessibility info: The zoo has accessible bathrooms and designated parking spaces are available adjacent to the entrance. All of the zoo paths are paved or boardwalk.
Strollers, wheelchairs and motorized scooter rentals are available at the Lion’s Den Gift Shop. Call (609) 465-0971 for reservations or information.
The zoo hosts a Dreamnight, an event for children with special needs or who are chronically ill.
Tickets: Admission is free; donations are welcome.
Season passes: N/A
Membership discounts or benefits: The Cape May County Zoological Society raises funds to support the zoo and all of the animals. Members receive discounts on food, merchandise and most education programs; a subscription to “ZooNews,” the society’s quarterly newsletter; and reciprocal privileges with affiliated zoos and aquariums across the country. For details, call (609) 465-9300 or visit capemayzoosociety.org.
COVID restrictions: Guests are asked to keep six feet away from other “groups” and asked not to visit if they are feeling unwell.
Hours: Zoo is open daily, except Christmas Day. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. early March through early November; 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. early November through early March. County park hours are 7 a.m. to dusk.
Go: 707 North Route 9, Cape May Court House, (609) 465-5271; www.cmczoo.com
The Bergen County Zoo, located in Van Saun County Park, became New Jersey’s first AZA-accredited zoo in 1986, after opening as a small children’s zoo in 1960.
Since then they have expanded to feature over 50 different species, and a thousand animals from the Americas.
“Our mission is to help species and their ecosystems survive, and educate [others] on how we can reduce our footprint on this planet, saving species for future generations," Zoo Director Marianne Vella said.
Biggest attractions: While their most popular residents are spider monkeys, bison, elk, mountain lions, condors and tamarins, the alligator, prairie dog and red wolf exhibits also are must-visits.
Upcoming events include the Wildlife Art Exhibit on May 21, featuring local artists displays, demonstrations and prizes; and World Ocean Day on June 5, featuring speakers from Sea Turtle Recovery and The Hackensack River Keeper.
Popular holiday celebrations include Winter Wonderland (from Black Friday until February), which features ice skating, food trucks, games, music, carousel and train rides; and the Let It Glow Lantern Festival (from November to January on Thursday through Sunday nights), when lighted animal sculptures created by Tianyu Arts & Culture Inc. decorate the zoo.
Amenities: There is a gift shop, train ride and carousel (both are $2 per person per ride), and a Splash Park, located in the park’s playground. It is open from Memorial Day through Labor Day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and includes sprinklers and water features, shaped like frogs and flowers, for children to run through.
Accessibility info: The zoo features handicap parking, accessible bathrooms and accessible pathways. The train and carousel are equipped for wheelchair access.
Tickets: Tickets for Bergen County residents are $4 for adults, $2 for children, and $1 for seniors and those with disabilities. Tickets for non-residents are $8, $5 and $2, respectively. Admission is free to military.
Season passes/Memberships: Individual memberships for $35, dual memberships (two people at the same address) for $50, and family memberships (2 adults and up to 4 kids) for $75 allow free admission, 10% discount on gift shop purchases, members-only event invites, discounted admission for special seasonal exhibits, preferred ticket purchasing for special events, and unlimited free or discounted admission to over 130 zoos and aquariums nationwide.
Sustaining membership (permits a family) for $100 has all the same benefits as the family membership, but allows five free guest passes and a personalized certificate. Contributing membership for $150 follows the same model, but allows 10 free guest passes and a special zoo gift.
COVID restrictions: Masks are required in the gift shop.
Hours: This zoo is open year round, with plenty of holiday celebrations throughout the winter. Daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The Cohanzick Zoo, New Jersey’s first zoo, opened in 1934. Nearly 100 animals representing more than 45 species from around the world call the zoo home. It is situated on about 15 acres in the City of Bridgeton’s 1,100 acre park.
Biggest attractions: Bengal tigers Rishi and Mahesha, cougars Nakia and Shuri, and Holly, an Asiatic black bear, are among visitor favorites.
The zoo is known for events including Coati Day, on Feb. 1, where the zoo’s coati (or coatamundis), Floriemel, Carmela and Margarita, predict the arrival of spring; KidsFest, a celebration of spring with face painting, crafts and entertainment; Boo at the Zoo, a Halloween celebration; and Zoo Camp, which offers close encounters with favorite critters, crafts and more.
Amenities: A concession stand is available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekends, May through September. Bathrooms with changing tables are available. Also, during the summer the city's Splash Park and Mini-Golf, which are adjacent to the zoo, are open.
Parking: Free, small lot adjacent to the zoo.
Accessibility info: The zoo has accessible bathrooms and designated parking spaces are available adjacent to the entrance. All of the zoo paths are paved or boardwalk.
Tickets: Free, donations welcome.
Season passes: N/A
Membership discounts or benefits: Supporters are invited to join the Cohanzick Zoological Society, which provides support for the animals and funds renovations and capital improvements; supporters may also adopt an animal or a memorial/sponsorship bench; supporters may also visit cohanzickzoo.org/support/our-wish-list/ to learn other ways to support the zoo animals.
Hours: Zoo is open daily, except New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, spring and summer, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, fall and winter (may be closed occasionally due to inclement weather.)
Go: 45 Mayor Aitken Drive, Bridgeton City Park, 856-453-1658 or 856-453-1675; Cohanzickzoo.org
Popcorn Park Animal Refuge, Forked River
Popcorn Park was founded in 1977, when the Associated Humane Societies saved and treated a racoon caught in a leg-hold trap.
After giving the helpless animal a home, the sanctuary became a haven for animals that were in bad situations, ill or dying. There are now more than 200 inhabitants of the park.
"We have eight large cats, 10 primates, three bears, a cavy, a capybara, five equine, several sheep, goats, cows, llamas, (birds), tortoises and turtles, and other reptiles like iguanas and caimans," said Park Director John Bergmann, who has been with Popcorn Park since the beginning.
“We're very fortunate to be able to do the things we have done here for the last 45 years.”
Biggest attractions: Their most popular inhabitants are Kya, the blind white tiger; Seven, the draft horse; Eli and Jess, who are sibling Bengal tigers, and three baboon brothers.
Amenities: Cold drinks, ice cream, popcorn and peanuts are available at the park, which also has a picnic area. Although visitors cannot feed most of the animals at the farm, they can feed roaming birds and certain farm animals popcorn and peanuts.
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Accessibility info: The sandy terrain of Popcorn Park Refuge is not conducive to standard wheelchairs or strollers. Upon request, a beach terrain wheelchair is available. There also is handicap parking right near the zoo's entrance.
Tickets: Tickets are $8 for adults, $5 for seniors and children ages 3 through 11, and free for military and children under 3.
Season passes/memberships: A family pass or single pass (with two guests), for $75 and $60 respectively, gives guests five visits per year.
There is also a “Golden Opportunity” pass for grandparents for $50, that allows them to bring grandchildren (age 12 and under) for seven visits that year. For unlimited visits for one visitor and one guest, there is a “Sustaining” pass for $90.
Hours: The park is open year round from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with last admission at 4:15 p.m.
Go: 1 Humane Way, Forked River section of Lacey, 609-693-1900; ahscares.org/popcorn-park
A century-old zoo where you can watch wild cats feast, feed deer by hand and see a museum with historical artifacts. That's what you will find at Space Farms in Beemersville.
Founded in 1927 by "Grandma and Grandpa Space" (Ralph and Elizabeth Space) with just a quarter acre of land, Space Farms started out as a general country store and repair shop.
The destination now has nearly 500 animals including big cats, reptiles, bears, deer, elk, emus, kangaroos and more. Co-owner Parker Space (grandson to Ralph, and son of Fred, who passed last year at age 92) operates the park with the help of his wife Jill, son Hunter and daughter-in-law Caitlyn, who is expecting the newest member of the Space Farm family in May.
"It's a family-friendly atmosphere and a family-run zoo," Parker Space said of the entirely privately funded zoo.
Biggest attractions: Although feeding deer and other small animals is a top activity at Space Farms, the most popular exhibits are the bears (black bears, grizzlies and Syrian grizzlies), who like to interact with the visitors from afar for treats, and big cats (lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards and more), who are fed fresh meat every day at 2 p.m.
A museum on the farm that displays historical artifacts collected by the Space Family throughout the years, features 45 historical cars, including covered wagons and roasters, as well as a collection of guns, some dating back to the Revolutionary War.
Amenities: Food and refreshments are available, such as pizza, chicken fingers or hot dogs. Feed/corn kernels for the “hoof-stock” animals (goats, sheep, etc.), and animal cookies for the larger animals (bears, monkeys, etc.), are $2.25 per bag.
Accessibility info: All pathways are paved, and there is handicap parking and handicap accessible bathrooms.
Tickets: Tickets are $22 for adults (13 and older), $18 for children (12 and under) and $21 for seniors (65 and older).
Season passes/Memberships: Season passes which allow unlimited visits and a 10% discount at the gift shop, are $44 for adults, $36 for children (12 and under), and $42 for seniors (65 and older).
Hours: The farm opens April 1 and closes the first week of November. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Go: 218 County Road 519, Sussex, 973-875-5800; spacefarms.com.
Rated the top zoo in the state by Trip Advisor, as well as one of the fastest growing zoos of its size by AZA, The Turtle Back Zoo's motto is "the world in your backyard."
The zoo now has over 200 different animals from every continent, but it was not always that way.
Just a few years ago, the zoo was much smaller, not AZA-accredited and lacked the educational opportunities it does today, attracting only 2000 visitors per year.
With the help of Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, credited with saving the zoo from closure when he took over in 2002, and zoological professionals like zoo Director Jillian Fazio, who specializes in conservational efforts, it now welcomes nearly one million patrons from across the country each year.
"There was nothing here, every exhibit was very outdated and old, there were no educational programs," DiVincenzo said. "We had to build it from the bottom up and now, 20 years later, every exhibit in the zoo has been expanded."
“We’re in a highly urbanized area where we have the ability to impact a significant number of people,” Fazio said. “With about 30 acres, people can come see animals from all over the globe, and learn about our conservation efforts for species in the wild.”
Biggest attractions: The zoo features international exhibits like "Amazing Asia" with animals like amur leopards, red pandas and gibbons; the "Australian Exhibit" with animals like kangaroos, wallabies and emus; and the "Wild New Jersey" exhibit, with animals like bobcats, ravens, porcupines and more.
Established in 2016, its largest exhibit is "African Adventure." While home to beasts like lions, hyenas, penguins and tortoises, some of its most popular residents are the Masai giraffes.
The touch tank building offers visitors the opportunity to interact with cow nose rays, Atlantic rays and Epaulette sharks, and exhibits that visitors can enjoy but not touch (like the Indo-Pacific Reef Exhibit with clown fish, tangs and damsel fish). Additionally, the building houses Larry, the rare, one-in 30-million orange lobster, who was found in a local grocery store.
Partnered with the non-profit Sea Turtle Recovery, the zoo hosts the Prudential Sea Turtle Recovery care facility, where they treat and re-release injured and sick turtles.
Visitors also can enjoy the walk-through butterfly exhibit Memorial Day through Labor Day. Monarchs were tagged this year and re-released as part of a conservational effort for migration.
From November through January, the zoo also hosts its annual free “Holiday Lights Spectacular,” featuring over 50 winter and animal characters, and twinkling lights throughout the venue.
Amenities: Single and double stroller rentals are available for $7 and $10, respectively. The Savanna Cafe is located just inside the entrance of the zoo (to the left), featuring drinks, chips, and bites like burgers and sandwiches. The zoo also has a gift shop for themed souvenirs.
The property is shared with the Orange Reservoir, which offers a walking path around the lake and boating opportunities on swan-shaped paddle boats during the summer. There is also a playground, mini-golf course and Treetop Adventure Course on the property.
Parking: Free, with additional parking garage space that is also free.
Accessibility info: The entire zoo is handicap accessible, with paved pathways and barrier-free exhibits. The train has a car designed specifically for wheelchair access, and the carousel has a bench for visitors who cannot climb onto the backs of the endangered species figurines. Wheelchairs also are available to use for free.
Tickets: Cost of admission for adults (13 and over) is $14, $12 for children (2 to 12) and seniors (62 and over), and free for children under 2.
Membership and Benefits: Members can unlock unlimited visits, and other benefits, at $105 for individuals, $130 for individuals plus one guest, $155 for families (two named adults and up to four children), or $175 for a family, plus one caregiver (an unnamed adult).
Benefits include 15% off the total food catering bill for events hosted at the Zoo, nearby Codey Arena or Verona Boathouse; 15% off purchases at the Savanna Cafe (during the months of April and October); 15% off at the gift shop; 15% off educational programs (camps excluded); early registration for select educational programming; exclusive exhibit previews and access to members-only events; early registration and discounts on Zoological Society of New Jersey events; privileges at more than 110 other affiliated zoos across the country; free subscription to the Society’s newsletters; and discounts from select business partners.
Hours: The zoo is open year-round, with some animals outside all season. Some habitats move indoors. There are also exhibits that are fully indoors all year, such as Penguin Coast, Reptile House and the aquarium. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
Go: 560 Northfield Ave, West Orange., 973-731-5800; turtlebackzoo.com
Gabriela L. Laracca joined the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey in 2021 and eagerly brings her passion for cuisine and culture to our readers. Send restaurant tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Parts of this story were previously published.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: 6 best zoos in New Jersey to visit in 2022: Tickets, hours, animals