When skies are gray, it’s a zoo day.
During the last few weeks, Cape May County experienced some much-needed rain, but not for vacationers staying in motel rooms, bed-and-breakfast inns or campers.
While the number one attraction for most who visit the Jersey Cape is likely the beach, ocean and boardwalks, those are not particularly inviting on a gray day with intermittent rain, and maybe even thunderstorms.
That’s when the Cape May County Park and Zoo, on Route 9 off Garden State Parkway Exit 11, look very attractive as a place to spend the day, for free (donations are gratefully accepted.)
According to Michael Laffey, park director, while dreary days boost attendance, the zoo has become a popular family destination even on sunny days. Still, nothing can fill the park’s parking spaces (there are 600 in the park, and 200 extra on the east side of Route 9 between that highway and Garden State Parkway).
“In the past few years, we are even busy on beach days,” said Laffey. With the added impetus placed by the county Department of Tourism marketing the zoo it’s been “busier and busier,” said Laffey.
“When we have a cloudy day, it’s that much more busy,” he added.
On those non-beach days, options for many include shopping, movies and/or the zoo.
“We appreciate the donations people give to support us,” he continued.
Cloudy days become “all hands” evolutions for the park’s employees. That means some ordinary work may have to wait until the next day, since all employees may be pressed into service handling the overflow crowds.
Most recently, said Laffey, workers were putting up a wind screen, but work had to stop to help park cars and direct visitors. “The staff has done a really good job this summer stopping what they are doing to help with parking,” Laffey said.
In addition to the 800 readily available spaces, there are 17 bus parking areas and three bus drop-off areas.
“That made it a little easier,” said Laffey.
If the crowds begin to back up traffic, especially on the Parkway, a call with be made by the N.J. Turnpike Authority of that lineup. When that happens, Sheriff’s Officers are detailed to assist placing the cars wherever space is available.
There have been times when the park accommodated between 1,200 and 2,000 cars. Laffey noted the park must be mindful when it wants to create parking spaces.
“We have to be careful not to move too many trees,” he said. Plans are in the works in cooperation with the County Engineer’s Office to alleviate the traffic flow problem entering the park and to accommodate summer parking.
In the past, restrooms have been cited as a problem with the overflow crowds. That has been dealt with restroom expansion.
The park staff is 41 employees, which includes those who work facilities in Del Haven on Bayshore Road with playground equipment and playing fields, another on Route 9 in Marmora, which is a totally pristine site with trails and lake views, but no playground equipment.
There are some temporary seasonal employees who handle trash and grass cutting.
There are 16 full-time animal keepers, many of whom wear several “hats,” said Laffey. One may be both a veterinarian technician as well as a dietician.
Dr. Hubert Paluch is zoo director assisted by Dr. Alex Ernst.
Laffey stressed that the park is a family facility, and as such alcohol use is prohibited. He said that Sheriff’s Officers are mindful of the many children who may run into the roadways, unaware of traffic danger or impaired drivers.
The “stars” of the zoo continue to be the baby snow leopards ‘who love to beat each other every day,” said Laffey.
In addition this summer, there is a Cuban crocodile in the reptile house. What makes it different, Laffey said, is its pointed snout.
Although not promoted as aggressively as other animals, the zoo also has an almost-all white white-tail deer with blue eyes. It was given to the zoo by U.S Fish and Wildlife Service in the spring. Laffey hopes it will develop spots.
To make the visitor’s time even more enjoyable in the future, Laffey said the Zoo Society is planning to provide a 65-inch flat-screen monitor in the snow leopard area. It will allow the public to view the creatures while they are inside their den.
Also on the drawing board, thanks to the society, will be placing of fiber optic cable that will enable visitors to see lemurs, bongos and zebras.
Regardless of other animals and exhibits, Laffey believes that “star” of the zoo is Rocky the tiger.
To make his area more habitable, with aid of the Zoo Society, and efforts of the staff, a berm and pond was placed, and sod put down to make the star more at home.
For those who fancy seeing African wildlife, the zoo is also home to giraffes, a male and three female. The male is 17 years old, and came to the zoo from Busch Gardens. He has sired several offspring which have gone to other zoos.
By Al Campbell