Visiting Popcorn Park Zoo With a Passel of Kids

By J.D. WATSON | Jul 31, 2019
Photo by: Juliet Kaszas-Hoch

Lacey Township — Deep in the wilds of the Pine Barrens, up along the northeastern edge of that million-acre expanse of pitch pines and sugar sand and not much else (that is, unless you know where to look) lies an oasis – a refuge of unique faunal biodiversity and an exemplar of some of man’s better nature.

Popcorn Park Zoo, an animal sanctuary for rescued animals that faced desperate circumstances or death, lies hard off Lacey Road in Lacey Township. Operated in conjunction with the Associated Humane Societies, Popcorn Park was established in 1977 for the sole purpose of providing a refuge for domestic or wild life that is sick, elderly, abandoned, abused, or injured, and which could no longer survive in its habitat.

On a recent humid summer morning, a group of intrepid investigators set out to brave the early morning heat and explore exactly what goes on out there. Lathering on the sunscreen, nearly-3-year-old Greta was accompanied by her 2-year-old cousin Sebastian, and friend Ella, 8, visiting from out-of-town. (Five-month-old Mattias came along, too, but, truth be told, he didn’t add much to the excursion as he slept.) They set out to see both exotic and familiar beasts lurking in their pens set among the pines.

For those who have never been there, Popcorn Park Zoo is home to scores of rescued and donated animals. Within the past decade, they have received two shipments of big cats (big, like lions and tigers) from sanctuaries that could no longer care for them. Arriving seriously malnourished and ill treated, the animals usually spend their final years here with at least some small measure of comfort, and paid the respect they are due.

To get a sense of the young visitors’ excitement, one only need see Greta grab her companion’s hand while simultaneously pointing to Kya, a white Bengal tiger with eyes clouded by glaucoma, lounging atop the waterfall in her enclosure.

Indeed, pens or no, hearing a lion’s guttural roar is one of the most awe-inspiring, hair-standing-on-end sounds to be heard on God’s green Earth.

But it is not only lions and tigers that impress. Renee Szorosy (assistant to zoo director John Bergmann) explained there are approximately 90 peacocks roaming the grounds of the zoo. Despite the beautiful tail plumage found on the impressively decorated males (that is, the peacocks, in contrast to the rather drab peahens), their incessant Hey-ELP calls startled young Sebastian more than once. “Be quiet, already!” the normally patient Ella chastised the birds on occasion.

Loud birdcalls notwithstanding, watching the children interact with the animals, in what for some may be their first contact with wild animals, is enchanting. Watching Sebastian trace with his fingers the coils of a boa, as he whispers, “Wow,” is to share in his wonder.

Similarly, Ella’s joyful laughter was contagious as Buster, the white-faced capuchin, engaged in various monkey business, including twirls and somersaults, ending with him shaking his bare bottom.

Or as Ella monkeyed Tess, the snow macaque, using her teeth to open a peanut and exclaimed, “I’m as fast as her!”

Or Sebastian, feeding Rudy the goat that was enthusiastically stretching his neck through a split-rail fence to get at the offered popcorn in his hand. “Oh! Whoa, buddy!” Sebastian exclaimed.

A word about Rudy: the young ram was rescued in Orange, N.J. after escaping a ritual sacrifice earlier this year in March.

Many animals come to the zoo from such dire circumstances. Toby and Dogo, two Patas monkeys, were rescued from a research lab in Maryland where, no longer of use, they were scheduled to be euthanized. Upon hearing that story, Ella’s eyes widened in amazement and wonder.

While not all of the animals at Popcorn Park Zoo have as dramatic a story as Rudy or Toby and Dogo, they all can be sponsored via the zoo’s website.

Szorosy explained that many of the animals come to the zoo by way of mundane circumstances. Whether turtles, snakes, iguanas or even a caiman, many animals at the zoo were unwanted pets that the previous owners could no longer adequately care for. Regarding Croc, the caiman, Szorosy said. “Someone had it as a pet. They soon realized it wasn’t a good idea. Now fully grown, it’s about four feet long.” That makes for some pet.

Other animals come to the zoo by well-meaning, if unwitting, intercedents. Many people bring Eastern box turtles they find and fear are lost. In truth, box turtles have a fairly large territorial radius. They don’t get lost until interfered with, according to Szorosy.

The zoo receives so many turtles, they usually are asked to hold on to them until the spring when the zoo can bring them, en masse, to other sanctuaries with enough room to hold them. “We just did a big transport,” Szorosy said. “There were dozens of turtles.”

White-tailed deer are another common animal frequently brought to the zoo unnecessarily. Szorosy described the frequently heard tale: someone is walking through the woods and comes upon an apparently abandoned fawn. Wanting to do the right thing, they take the fawn and, at a loss of what to do next, call the zoo. In reality, the doe will have habitually distanced herself from the young fawn in an attempt to lure away any potential predator. “She’s watching you take her baby,” Szorosy said. “We call them fawn-nappers. The best way you can tell if the fawn has been abandoned for any considerable length of time is if they are covered with bugs and ticks. If not, they have not been abandoned.”

Walking past Boo Boo, the American black bear (taken by a car dealership in Iowa as a down payment) snoozing in the shade as the heat of the day increased, and circling back around to Kya, the white Bengal tiger, cooling off in her pool, prompted Greta to admit, “I want to take a dip.”

The group retreated to the main entrance for some well-deserved ice cream and a plush toy for each of them to serve as a remembrance (and, unknown to them, helped finance the good work done at the zoo).

Popcorn Park Zoo is located at One Humane Way, Forked River and is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. Admission is $7 for adults, or $4 for seniors and children aged 3-12. Younger children get in free.

For more information, including animal bios and links to become a sponsor, visit ahscares.org.

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