County announces plans for Island Giants exhibit at Turtle Back Zoo

Photo Courtesy of Glen Frieson
Officials from Essex County and Turtle Back Zoo, joined by construction leaders, break ground on the zoo’s new Island Giants exhibit, featuring alligators and Komodo dragons, on Monday, Nov. 7.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — On Nov. 7, Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. announced plans for a new Island Giants exhibit, featuring alligators and Komodo dragons, at Turtle Back Zoo. The county executive also announced he is proposing to name the exhibit in honor of Commissioner Patricia Sebold, who has served on the Essex County Board of County Commissioners for more than 30 years and has been a member of the Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund since it formed in 1998.

“The new exhibit will enable us to provide more indoor and outdoor spaces for our alligators and Komodo dragons and create a more dynamic year-round experience for our visitors to see the animals. This is part of our ongoing initiative to continually enhance accommodations for and care of our animals, meet new animal care standards, and provide our visitors unique learning opportunities,” DiVincenzo said. “I want to make sure that the people who have given so much to Essex County are recognized for their contributions. Pat is deserving of this honor because of the solid representation she has given to the people of Essex County as a commissioner and advisory board member.”

“Joe always thinks of wonderful projects for Essex County. This is going to be a marvelous exhibit,” said Sebold, who was surprised by DiVincenzo’s announcement that the exhibit would be named after her. “I never expected something like this. This is truly an honor.”

“When we entered the zoo on the way here, I noticed the droves of people who came out today. But this is how it is every day. The zoo has become part of our families’ staycations. The most important accomplishment is that a visit to the zoo plants a seed for the next generation and the exhibits the county executive is creating helps us understand our connection to nature and the importance of conservation,” state Senate Majority Leader and Deputy Chief of Staff Teresa Ruiz said.

“The World of Water is the thematic area of the zoo that allows us to highlight some of the species and ecosystems most influenced by water. It provides a platform for us to discuss the importance of water conservation to our planet’s health and survival,” zoo Director Jillian Fazio said. “The new habitats we are building with Island Giants demonstrate our commitment to protecting these vulnerable coastal species around the world. Our mission is to connect our guests and awaken them to the realities that threaten our planet. These new habitats will assist us in the mission.”

The current alligator exhibit was updated in 2003 and needs to be updated to meet current standards set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The new exhibit will be designed to resemble a bayou-type shed with a weathered wood surface on the outside. The indoor area will have a pool and the background will resemble a swampy area. The pool for the alligators will have a split view so visitors will be able to see the animals when they are underwater and floating about the water level. The expanded exhibit will enable Turtle Back Zoo to host two alligators instead of the one it can currently host.

The Komodo dragon was welcomed in 2012 at Turtle Back Zoo, which at the time was the only zoo in the tristate area to have the reptiles on display. The Komodo dragon has been the marquee animal housed in the Reptile Building. The new exhibit will have a southeast Asian theme; the building will have a thatched roof and be landscaped with reeds. There also will be sandy areas, which are similar to the native habitat of the Komodo dragon. The expanded space will allow Turtle Back Zoo to increase the number of Komodo dragons on exhibit from one to two.

Improved accommodations for both the alligator and Komodo dragon will enable Turtle Back Zoo to participate in the AZA’s Species Survival Program, which is a breeding program to strengthen the populations of endangered species.

The new exhibit will be located where the current alligator exhibit is situated. Turtle Back’s alligator will be temporarily housed at the Bronx Zoo while the Komodo dragon will remain in the Reptile Building until its new quarters are complete.

French and Parrello, from Wall, received a professional services contract for $376,000 to design the new exhibit. APS Contracting, from Paterson, was awarded a publicly bid contract for $4,109,800 to perform the construction work. The Essex County Department of Public Works will monitor the project to ensure delays are avoided. This is being funded through the Essex County capital budget and a grant from the Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund. It is scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2023.