By Collin Hall
Do The Zoo is a feature series where we go behind the scenes at the Cape May County Zoo.
The Reptile House at the Cape May County Zoo burned to the ground in 1998. The incident, spurred by an electrical failure, made national headlines; the New York Times reported that over 200 animals were killed in the tragedy and that the old building “practically melted.” But 24 years later, the Zoo’s newish (1999) Reptile House is a thriving place for preservation and education.
Kevin Wilson, Zoo Curator, has worked at the Zoo for 29 years – he is the Zoo’s second most senior employee. He has worked “nearly every job possible” at the Zoo during his tenure. He now oversees employee hiring, training, scheduling, and coordinating upkeep at the Zoo. But in all his responsibility, he still plays an intimate role in reptile care.
“I took over management of the Reptile House 17 years ago,” Wilson said.
The Herald spoke with Wilson in the back of the Reptile House, away from the busyness of the hot summer day. His office is just a few feet from tanks, hoses, and strange looking gadgets that assist with reptile care. A large tub that houses a Mexican bearded lizard, marked “venomous” in bright red, sits just around the corner from the desk where we spoke.
Wilson said that he had a “dry day,” which means he cleaned the turtle, snake, alligator, and lizard cages. The other zookeeper on duty had a “wet day,” which means time with the amphibians. Every enclosure is cleaned at least once a day, even when snow comes down hard and hurricanes batter the zoo.
“First and foremost, that means getting rid of any stool,” Wilson said.
It’s important that the animals have perfectly manicured enclosures that meet the needs of each species. But it’s just as important, Wilson said, that their enclosures look clean to passers-by.
Ed Runyon, Parks Director at the Cape May County Park and Zoo, stressed that perception is everything for a facility with as much publicity as the Zoo. “If the pens don’t look clean, it doesn’t matter how well the animals are cared for. People will assume the worst,” Runyon said.
He said that the background imagery in the Reptile House, which was originally airbrushed artwork, was completely replaced last summer with high-durability wallpaper. The animals didn’t mind the change, but it sure did a lot for the thousands of people that visit.
Wilson laughed, and said that one of the turtles tried to climb into a pond pictured on one of the new wall spreads.
Just before our interview, Wilson cleaned Ike the alligator’s pen. Alligators, he said, are highly intelligent, emotional animals.
“They can count, they know how many syllables are in their names. They are super responsive to training,” he said.
Ike, though three decades old, still has a lot of growing to do. He’s nine feet long now but will grow to 15 feet over the next 30 years. Ike has lived at the Cape May County Zoo for 15 years and has the potential to outlive his caretakers. Some alligators live a century in captivity.
As Wilson walked around the reptile enclosures, he called certain animals – like Ike – by name and engaged in friendly banter with many of them.
“They have feelings that we don’t associate with reptiles. They see each other as friends,” he said, remembering the time that two boa constrictors fell into a fit of strange behavior when they were separated. The boas only returned to normal when they were reunited.
Wilson has spent decades with some of these animals. Fred, an Aldabra giant tortoise, has been at the Zoo longer than Wilson. Fred weighs around 500 pounds and has to be moved across the Zoo in a shipping crate with lifting equipment in the winter. He is moved to a heated spot not viewable by the public when the temperatures cool down.
To pull this off, Fred is lured once a week into a shipping crate for treat time. All of this so that, once a year, it doesn’t come as a shock when it’s time to get in the crate for transport.
“Has it really been that long since the fire?” Wilson wondered at the end of our time together. It has been 23 years since tragedy struck the Reptile House – disasters like that are impossible to predict. But Wilson, Ed Runyon, and the Zoo’s year-round staff, undeterred by the hard work it takes to keep a place like this running, are prepared to meet any challenge that comes their way.