Big Cat Country Exhibit at Turtle Back Zoo Now Open
Jaguars, cougars find new home; snow leopards new to Asia exhibit
The big cats at Essex County's Turtle Back Zoo have found a new roaming ground that feels just like home.
Construction of the Southwest-themed Big Cat Country Exhibit is complete, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. announced Friday.
The roughly 7,500-square-feet exhibit houses two new jaguars and two cougars that were previously in the Asia exhibit. "Cougars are not from Asia," Dr. Jeremy Goodman, the zoo's director said. He said instead, a new snow leopard — 7-year-old Gala — is now at the Asia exhibit.
Both jaguars and cougars hail from the North American region. Designer Mike Piga, of French and Parrello, said he kept that in mind when crafting the project, "We wanted to bring out the environment they grew up in."
The exhibit includes two caves, striated rockwork, cactus plants and an overall mining theme, he said. Heated rocks are strategically placed adjacent to the large glass windows, drawing the animals close to public view.
Taking advantage of an unexpected snow day Friday afternoon, three youngsters from Short Hills sat within inches of the jaguars strewn across the heated rock.
His hand placed against the glass, inches away from the animals' fur, James Raincsuk said he had never seen a jaguar before. "Cats are my favorite animal. I have a white one at home."
"These are so cool because you don't see them everyday," Jamie Serruto said.
"They're so furry, I want to jump in there and hug them," said Alden Lamb.
The new jaguars are sisters named Maya and Rosa. Both animals are one year old. The two cougars are 12-year-old Scout and 8-year-old Sage, Goodman said.
He said cougars are more cold tolerant animals but still had heating rocks in their space. The exhibit also includes a pool for jaguars, one of the few animals that enjoy water, said Goodman.
In addition to the outdoor exhibit, the plan built a state-of-the-art breeding and holding facility. Goodman hopes the zoo will eventually be able to breed jaguars, an endangered species.
The area has two large windows and a handicap accessible walkway for guests to see the cats. An eco-friendly and handicap accessible bathroom was also added so guests have a restroom at the top of the zoo, Goodman said.
DiVincenzo said the big cat exhibit that broke ground in April did not meet its October deadline. The grand opening was postponed after the hurricane, earthquake, October snowstorm and other inclement weather. The exhibit, though, is part of a larger $3.1 million project that includes the Treetop Adventure Course that opened in September.
"Over the last several years we have set higher and higher standards for ourselves to provide visitors with exciting experiences … the addition of Big Cat Country represents a new chapter in the development of Turtle Back Zoo," DiVincenzo said.
He said the money for the big cats and the obstacle course was paid through capital dollars that were allocated for the project and through Open Space grants.