Turtle Back Zoo opens African Adventure Exhibit

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Photo by Glen Frieson

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Essex County opened the African Adventure Exhibit at Turtle Back Zoo on Tuesday, May 17. The exhibit is the largest at Turtle Back and features four Masai giraffes, eland, whistling ducks, ostriches and tortoises. At the ribbon-cutting were Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., Gov. Chris Christie, N.J. First Lady Mary Pat Christie and Abigail Puleo from Nutley, a grade-school student who is recovering from cancer.

“Of all the new natural habitat-themed exhibits and attractions we have introduced through the years at Turtle Back, the African Adventure Exhibit with our four giraffes probably has created more excitement among the community and our visitors,” DiVincenzo said, according to a press release. “This anticipation and the opportunity to see exotic animals that we probably would never see up close are at the heart of our mission to raise awareness and promote education about animals, the environment and conservation.”

“It’s important to have places like Turtle Back Zoo where children can come and learn about nature and the environment, but also places where families can have quality time together,” Chris Christie said. “I am thrilled to be back here at Turtle Back Zoo.” DiVincenzo also presented Mary Pat Christie with a gift basket of Turtle Back Zoo souvenirs.

Essex County Turtle Back Zoo Director Brint Spencer highlighted the fact that Turtle Back Zoo is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and is part of its Species Survival Plan.

“Zoos are a wonderful place for the public to see animals from throughout the world, but they also have an integral role in saving vulnerable species that are on the brink of extinction and helping to strengthen their population,” he said. “We thank the County Executive for having the vision to create this state of the art exhibit and look forward to the limitless education and preservation opportunities it creates for us here at Turtle Back Zoo,” Spencer said.

The three-acre exhibit is located in the southern part of the zoo behind the Animal Hospital and Train Station. It is a mixed-species exhibit, featuring animals found in the African savanna. All of the giraffes are of the Masai subspecies, which are typically found in southern Kenya and Tanzania and are the largest subspecies of giraffes, making them the tallest land mammals. They have large, distinctive, dark brown, vine-leaf shaped, jagged spots interspersed by creamy-brown irregular lines and are noticeably darker in color than other species of giraffe. They typically grow to be about 16 to 18 feet tall. The four giraffes at Turtle Back were all born in the United States and came from other zoos in Florida, South Carolina and San Diego.

Current estimates by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation put the giraffe population at about 80,000, which is down from 140,000 in 1999. Giraffes are endangered because they are often victims of poaching. Turtle Back Zoo is now among 29 AZA-accredited zoos that house 119 giraffes.

The African Adventure was specifically designed to accommodate the giraffes. The barn is the largest structure at the zoo; it has a specially designed, three-layer floor with a slip-resistant finish. There is an indoor exercise area for the giraffes, adjustable hay racks to accommodate the different heights of the giraffes, windows positioned at the giraffe’s height so they can look outside during the winter and multiple heating systems to ensure proper temperatures.

The outdoor habitat created for the giraffes will resemble three acres of the African savanna and will have multiple viewing areas for the public, including areas where the public can view the giraffes feeding.

French & Parrello from Wall received a $375,000 contract to design the giraffe exhibit. Terminal Construction from Wood Ridge was awarded a publicly bid contract for $7 million to build the exhibit. The Essex County Department of Public Works monitored the project to answer questions and avoid delays. The exhibit was funded through the Essex County capital budget and with a grant from the Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund. Construction of the exhibit started in July 2015 and was finished in December 2015. The giraffes were relocated to Turtle Back in March, with the last two months being used to allow the animals to get used to their new surroundings.