Photo: An Emperor Tamarin crosses a rope in its enclosure at the Cape May County Zoo. Photos by Erin Drumm.

By Erin Drumm

The Cape May County Zoo draws crowds from far and wide with its free admission, exotic animals, and clean grounds. 550,000 visitors go in and out of the zoo gates every year. But how did the Zoo come to be, and how did the popular attraction become a local centerfold?

The story starts over 200 years ago, when the freeholders of Cape May County purchased land from the Matthew’s family in 1818 and left it open for public use; for the next century, it was primarily used by hunters.

The Zoo’s first lion, donated from the Cohanzick Zoo in 1978. Provided photo.

Edward Runyon, park director at the zoo, said that in the 1940s, county freeholders assigned the Roads Department to the difficult job of clearing then-untamed land. They also planted grass and maintained the land to ensure the public could enjoy it properly. Locals in the area began to fish in the pond and picnic at the park.

In 1967, the county freeholders put a vote to the public that posed the question: should a Park Commission be established to maintain the land? The public voted overwhelmingly in favor of establishing the commission. The newly-formed Commission added pavilions and picnic tables to the park in the late 60s and early 70s.

In 1976, the commission held a “Bicentennial Bash” at the park, a week-long Fourth of July celebration for the community. 16 acres of land, dubbed “Park East,” was acquired in 1976, and the commission added basketball and tennis courts, a ball field, a restroom, and a parking lot.

In 1978, the Cape May County Zoo was finally created. The zoo was originally placed on one acre of land in the back of the park and consisted of only domesticated and local animals- animals like racoons, snakes, and goats.

The grand opening of the Zoo. Provided photo

Within the first year of opening, a baby lion was donated from the Cohanzick Zoo in Bridgeton. This changed the course of the zoo’s future. Although the zoo started with domesticated and local animals, with the arrival of the lion, the zoo began to branch out and welcome more exotic animals.

Runyon said of the lion: “The Cohanzick Zoo worked closely with us giving guidance and information on building the habitats. They also assisted with acquiring some of animals and they took it one step further with giving us the lion.”

As the zoo brought in more critters, it also expanded in number of acres. The zoo started with one acre of land and gradually built up to the 52 acres of land it spans today.

The Commission decided to make the zoo free in keeping with the park’s tradition of free experiences for the public; people came to the park to play basketball, fish, and picnic for free and the Commission wanted to continue to offer free use of the land and services.

In the late 80s and 90s, the zoo added tamarin row exhibits, the aviary, and the reptile house. The reptile house was the first large building structure of its size at the zoo and was built in 1991. In 1999, the reptile house completely burnt down and all of the animals were lost because there was no alarm or fire suppression system in the reptile house at the time. The zoo had a large fundraiser to rebuild the reptile house with help from local school students, who donated nickels and pennies, and the new reptile house opened in 2000. After the tragic accident, all of the zoo’s buildings have been installed with fire alarm systems.

Zebras at the Cape May County Zoo have a huge outdoor “Safari” enclosure. Photo by Erin Drumm.

In the early years of the zoo, most people visiting were local, but the zoo quickly gained the attention of tourists visiting in the summertime.

The high standards of the Cape May County Zoo continue to draw tourists to the park every year. There are about 2,300 zoos in America currently registered with the USDA, the United States Department of Agriculture, with only 10% achieving AZA accreditation. AZA accredited zoos are held to the highest standards of animal care in the world.

A new lion exhibit is planned at the Zoo; the new enclosure can fit a pride of 8 lions. Erin Drumm.

In addition to AZA accreditation, the Cape May County Zoo holds ZAA, Zoological Association of America, accreditation, which means the zoo reaches the highest standards of responsible wildlife management, conservation, and education. There are only nine zoos in America dually accredited; the Cape May County Zoo holds one of those coveted spots.

The zoo hosts an educational zoo camp in the summertime through, running a 1 week camp with different groups for 12 weeks straight. This year’s zoo camp was completely booked within 30 seconds of registration opening. The zoo hopes to expand on their zoo camp in the future, with more resources and camp offerings.

The zoo continues to expand today, with the grand opening of a new cafe on June 10th. This marks the first indoor and sit-down eating facility at the zoo. The zoo is also working on a new lion exhibit that will be able to fit a pride of 8 lions. The cheetah exhibit will also be improved alongside this renovation. After 45 years, the zoo continues to thrive and expand while meeting AZA and ZAA standards. Because of intense dedication from a large team of animal-lovers, support from county commissioners, and taxpayer funding, the zoo remains an intensely popular spot for locals and visitors alike.