On May 6, 1978, the Cape May County Zoo opened on one acre within the Cape May County Park. The zoo featured about 70 animals, including domestic animals like chickens, donkeys and ducks, and New Jersey wildlife like chipmunks, rabbits, raccoons, turtles and snakes. A month later, the zoo received its first superstar, Numar the African lion, who became famous throughout the county. This was only the beginning of a facility that would make a mark on Cape May County.
In the early 1980s, the zoo began incorporating exotic animals into its displays, and in 1986 a zoo renaissance began. Donations led to major reconstruction, which consisted of a complete perimeter fence, a new lion exhibit, a Bengal tiger exhibit, a cougar exhibit, a giraffe and camel exhibit, a reptile house, a medical building and a diet preparation building. The zoo was growing, and began making its way into the hearts of both Cape May County locals and visitors alike.
In 1989, the zoo became AZA (Association of Zoos & Aquariums) accredited, and remains so today. As an AZA-accredited zoo, the Cape May County Zoo began receiving animals from other AZA-accredited zoos’ conservation breeding programs. From there, the zoo continued to grow, constructing new exhibits and renovating old ones. With that growth came the construction of one of the zoo’s most popular exhibits, the African Savanna. To reach the African Savanna, visitors must walk on an elevated boardwalk through a cool, shady, wooded area. The end of the boardwalk opens up to 57 acres of sprawling habitat featuring giraffes, zebras, antelopes, cattle, ostriches and more.
Today, 40 years later, the Cape May County Zoo consists of 52 acres boasting 550 animals representing 250 species. Since the zoo’s beginning, thousands of visitors have been impressed – and often surprised – to see such an extensive collection of animals within such a beautifully maintained park.
To this day, the zoo continues to expand and redevelop existing areas to improve both the visitors’ and animals’ experiences. The most recent addition came in November 2017, combining two primate habitats into one modernized larger one. Primate Point is an 8,000-square-foot building with five rooms housing families of Black Howler and DeBrazza monkeys. The brand new habitat gives the primates access to three different exterior habitats and five separate interior dens.
The Cape May County Zoo remains heavily involved in many conservation initiatives which aided in its initial growth. According to Dr. Alex Ernst, Associate Veterinarian at the Cape May County Zoo, the most significant conservation initiative the zoo is involved in is the AZA Species Survival Plan (SSP). The mission of the SSP is to manage specific – typically threatened or endangered – species populations within AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums to enhance conservation in the wild. Through this program, animals within the AZA-accredited zoos are paired up for breeding based on potential.
“It’s like an insurance policy against extinction,” says Dr. Ernst. “The program identifies species that could potentially go extinct, and ensures they won’t by maintaining their genetic strength and uniqueness. Should a species go extinct or become endangered, this program can offer those genetics for reintroduction efforts.” While Dr. Ernst’s primary role at the zoo is to monitor the health of the animal residents, he also oversees the transfer of animals for the SSP program.
The Cape May County Zoo is proud to be a part of this valuable program that not only aided in its own growth, but also contributes to the survival of animals.
A Place Loved By All
After 40 years of growth and development, the zoo holds a special place in many hearts.
“I think it’s the intimacy of it,” shares Dr. Ernst. “Both locals and visitors have grown up visiting our zoo, including myself, and they feel attached to it. It’s come to a point where people have been coming back for generations, and are bringing their own children now.” Dr. Ernst also feels that the fact that the zoo is free has greatly contributed to that attachment. “This helps people come back time and time again. Every time they return and learn or see something new, their relationship with the zoo is strengthened.”
Over the past decade or so, Dr. Ernst has seen the popularity of the zoo go through the roof. Although he became the zoo’s Associate Veterinarian in 2005, he worked seasonally at the zoo as a student since 1999. During that time, the zoo was known as Cape May County’s “best kept secret;” but that surely isn’t the case anymore. The zoo is now very widely known, making the list of “places to go” for almost any visitor to our area.
The Cape May County Zoo sets our Jersey Shore destination apart. All of the shore communities up and down the New Jersey coast and beyond have beautiful beaches and boardwalks, but we have an award-winning, free zoo. Our county offers a viable, inexpensive alternative when a beach day is out of the question, or the family is bored of the boards. The zoo makes our coastal county unique, and will continue to do so for years to come.
stay in the know