The animals at New Jersey’s Popcorn Park Zoo are never aloof like the animals you see in other zoos. They’ve all been rescued from some idiot who thought these bears, big cats and monkeys would make attention-getting pets–or at least be an easy way to make a quick buck. Plus, they all want your popcorn or peanuts. Unlike any other zoo I’ve ever been to, you’re allowed to give the treats to them.
Their lives are much better now than they once were. BooBoo, a black bear, was used to pay for a car in Iowa, sold to a dealer who wanted the bear to draw in customers. Tigers were about to be used in a canned hunt. The Coati Cocoa spent two years in a cage in a basement.
Associated Humane Societies began in 1906 as a traditional animal shelter; they still adopt out dogs and cats at three shelters around the state, including one right next door to the zoo. In 1977 they started the “zoo” to take in native animals that couldn’t make it in the wild. Eventually they started taking in exotic animals that too often turned up in animal cruelty cases.
The zoo itself was the victim of a revolting attack in 2003, when three 18-year-olds, Matthew Ronneberg, Thomas Cavanaugh and Matthew Mercuro, broke into the zoo and bludgeoned to death three emus, two rheas and three ducks. The men got an unbelievably light sentence of probation. Ronneberg didn’t even meet those demands and eventually got in more trouble for a probation drug violation than for slaughtering shelter animals for fun. The zoo now has much better security, which you see some of as soon as you drive in, just before you start seeing the enormous flock of peacocks that roam freely.
The zoo is not set up to entertain people as much as it is to educate them–and give a place for animals that can’t go back to the wild. But it does end up being more entertaining in some way. They aren’t trying to create a fake Africa or Yellowstone, so they sell bags of unbuttered, air-popped popcorn at the entrance and you can give it to the animals, who are eager customers. There’s bags of peanuts for the bears and monkeys. It ends up being a kind of enrichment; at least it gives the animals something to do.
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