Turtle Back Zoo
500 Northfield Avenue
West Orange, NJ 07052
Open: Sunday-Saturday 10:00am-3:00pm
My review on TripAdvisor:
I have been coming to the Turtle Back Zoo since I was in elementary school when we used to come here on field trips. I remember as a child having lunch on the lawn with my class and feeding the animals. That was back in the 1970’s with the old zoo set up. I had read that the zoo was falling apart by 1995 and they were ready to close it down. Like anything else, these zoos and parks need an update every few years to keep them relevant.
In 2000, as master plan was started in what direction the zoo wanted to go and in the next twenty years, I have seen the results of that hard work. You have many nicer displays, some still being too small for the respective animals, but a more realistic environment created for them. Back in 2016 when I joined the board of another zoo, I visited the Turtle Back Zoo for the first time since 1976. I visited a much improved and engaging zoo with nice displays and more diverse animals.
The new zoo set up has a good flow
On Groundhog’s Day, I went to see the small festival that the zoo was running that ended up being a ten-minute talk with an audience of the staff, volunteers and local politicians. I thought the zoo could do so much more to build on the reputation of this event. They introduced the new groundhog, Miss ‘Edwina of Essex’, who replaced ‘Essex Ed’. They said he had retired to Florida (I was not sure if he died or was somewhere else that day). Still, it was a cute little event with the groundhog trying to walk off and escape and a weather prediction of an early spring.
Miss ‘Edwina of Essex’ will be the star of Groundhog’s Day festivities in the future
Read my blog on MywalkinManhattan.com” Day “Two Hundred and Sixteen: Meeting ‘Edwina from Essex’ at the Turtleback Zoo-Happy Groundhog’s Day”:
After the event was over, I got a chance to walk around the zoo for an hour and even though it was the middle of the winter, there was a lot going on at the zoo. I spent the next hour or so walking the exhibits and watching the feedings. Being the middle of the winter with snow all around, a lot of the displays were closed, and the animals were inside as it was too cold for them.
I started the tour of the zoo at the Flamingo pool. Watching these graceful animals communicate in their own language amongst themselves was interesting. The flamingos looked at us humans with amusement almost as if they were cracking a joke at our expense. They walked around their pool in groups, and it was fascinating to see how they moved in cliques. Some stayed at one part of the display while others moved around conversing about something.
The flamingos carried on a nice conversation at our expense
I visited the Petting Zoo that was pretty much closed, but the animals were out having their afternoon meal. I swear the rams and sheep looked at me like an alien from Outerspace. I have never gotten such an inquisitive look from another animal before. They all just stared at me and stopped eating. I guess they had not seen a visitor in a long time with the exception of the staff with the weather being what it has been.
The lions and giraffes were all inside warming up as this weather was not something they are used to, and I will have to revisit these exhibits in warmer weather. The Penguin House was a lot of fun to visit. The penguins are so engaging and had just finished their feeding time. They looked like they were ready to play.
Penguins’ dove and swam all around me, looking at me through the glass and trying to communicate with a lot of chirping. They looked so happy to see another person beside the trainers. As I followed them as they swam around the tank, they looked to me like they were trying to show me their swimming skills. I felt like they were trying to befriend me as some sort of strange new penguin. They are really used to seeing humans and find ways to engage with us.
The penguins at the Turtle Back Zoo are so friendly
I got to watch the sea lion feeding and watch the seals and otters swim around their tanks. The otters, which are an outdoor animal looked so cold that they swam for a bit after their feeding and then raced inside their burros to get out of the weather.
I stopped into to the Sea Turtle Recovery Building to see what the zoo was doing to help the turtles with their health and how the recovery was done. Separate tanks where the turtles are monitored for their therapy are on display and you can see the different stages they go through before being released into the wild.
The Big Cat Country exhibition had the poor cougars and mountain lions walking around in circles in the snow looking like they were not too sure what to do next. They did not look that happy to be outside, but I am sure being cooped up was not good for them either.
The Train Ride through the park was closed for the season as was the carousel and the restaurant. Those will have to be revisited in the Spring. I revisited the Reptile House one more time before I left for the day. There is a variety of snakes, lizards and other wild creatures on display here and it the one exhibit where the animals seemed happy in their environment as they had plenty of room to move around and stretch. I swear that those snakes know that you are there. They just stare at you when you walk by looking like they are plotting to get out of the glass displays.
I will visit again in the Spring and talk about the comparisons with the weather and how it affects the animal’s behavior. They are no different than us with adapting to the change of the seasons. Many of these animals come from environments where this type of cold is not what they are used to and it is hard for them.
There will be a lot more to see in the warm weather when I return.
The History of Turtle Back Zoo:
(From the Zoo’s Website)
The Turtle Back Zoo came into conception in 1962 when the Essex County Parks Commission President, William Wachenfeld, awarded a $400,000 contract to Max Drill Inc. to build a 15.5-acre zoo in the South Mountain Reservation Park. It was designed to be a seasonable park for children.
The Turtle Back Zoo logo
Designer Tjark Reiss was hired to design the park and he created exhibits based on Hans Christian Anderson’s nursery rhyme themes and other children’s stories. There were to be farm animals and an antique train ride that took visitors on a mile round trip ride through the zoo’s surrounding woodlands.
The Turtle Back Zoo opened June 3rd, 1963, with a collection of 140 animals of 40 species. The zoo took its name from a rock formation located on the mountain side east of the zoo. The Lenape Indians called this formation Turtle Back Rock. The pattern on the rocks created by large basaltic crystals makes it appear that you are standing on the back of an enormous tortoise.
In 1973, the zoo’s animal collection had grown to 850 animals of 275 species. In 1975, a Zoological Society was established to promote the zoo and provide funding support through memberships and other fund-raising efforts. The first board meeting took place in September of 1975. In 1978, the Board of Commissioners that directly administered the park was replaced with Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs under the direction of the County Executive.
In 1995, the zoo fell into disrepair and the zoo was almost shut down in 1995 (Wiki).
In 2000, the zoo completed a new master plan with accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association as its major focus. The zoo started to replace the antiquated 1960’s style cages with larger, more naturalistic habitats for its animals. In 2005, the zoo completed a new 1.8-million-dollar Essex County Animal Hospital at the Turtle Back Zoo to serve the zoo’s animal residents and serve as a animal quarantine facility for the growing animal collection.
That year the zoo demolished the original administration building and education center and replaced them with a new 11,000 square foot complex that included a walk-through gift shop, a new visitor friendly entrance and exit, a 4,000 square foot reptile center, administration offices a new group entrance and two classrooms opening to an auditorium. A new picnic pavilion and an animal themed playground were opening in 2006.
In September of 2006, the Turtle Back Zoo was granted accreditation by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. This distinct honor places the Turtle Back Zoo amongst the elite zoos and aquariums of the United States and means that the zoo adheres to the highest standards of zoos in the country.