I'm calling it deja zoo - the weird feeling that you've seen a zoo before, even if you never have. As far as I know, it's only happened to one person ever (me) and on one occasion - that of my first visit to the Cape May County Zoo, located in southern New Jersey. From the animals featured to the exhibit design, the place reminded me very much of the Metro Richmond Zoo. That's neither here nor there - just a casual observation.
Cape May County is one of the tiny handful of free zoos left in the country, and for a free facility, it boasts a pretty impressive collection. The zoo is especially known for its collection of cats - the center of the park consists of three sprawling grassy yards - one for lions, one for cheetahs, and one for Amur tiger. Two more big cats - snow leopard and Amur leopard - can be seen on Pathway to Diversity, a looping trail that originates just past the lion exhibit. I felt like the name of the trail was a slightly cynical attempt to force cohesiveness among what really was a pretty random selection of animals. Ring-tailed lemurs, red pandas, and birds of prey inhabited wood-and-wire cages. The far side of the trail was dominated by three African savannah yards, housing ostriches, zebras, scimitar-horned oryx, and giraffe. Also sharing the yards (though I did not see them) were bongo. Cape May has been very involved in bongo conservation, with calves born at this zoo being released in Africa.
On the other side of the big cats were more hoofstock yards, these housing elk and bison, camels and llamas, as well as white white-tailed deer. A petting barn with a cow, pigs, and goats is nearby.
The bird collection of the zoo is centered at the World of Birds aviary, located near the entrance. The building consists mostly of a free-flight aviary with a path meandering down the middle. Sacred and scarlet ibis, crowned pigeons, and roseate spoonbills are the species that most guests will spot most easily. Tucked among the branches or splashing beneath the waterfowl, more observant visitors may watch several other birds, such as whistling ducks, nicobar pigeons, and Bali mynahs. My pleasure in the aviary was somewhat dampened by the assorted collection of parrots in, well, bird cages, both in the entry way of the building and lined up outside. I also couldn't claim to be too impressed with must surely be the smallest flamingo flock - four birds, two Americans, two greaters - that I've ever seen. Much more impressive was the giant bald eagle flight cage; one rarely sees flighted bald eagles in zoos, and to watch them fly was a treat. I also have to give a special shout-out to the really cool observation beehive in the aviary. Sandhill cranes and black swans are found elsewhere in the zoo.
The reptile and amphibian collection was likewise far more extensive than I would have expected at this zoo. The Reptile and Amphibian House featured dozens of species, from Iberian ribbed newts to Chinese alligator. I almost would have preferred to see fewer species and larger, more complex, mixed-species exhibits - by the end of the hall, I had tank fatigue. Outside were yards for various tortoises, as well as a pool for American alligators.
Scattered around the rest of the zoo were exhibits for American black bear, red-necked wallabies, muntjac, and various small primates. A short Small Mammal trail featured bobcats, Patagonian cavies, red foxes, coatis, crested porcupines, and North American river otters. I'm sorry I wasn't able to see the capybara - the exhibit looked lovely, perhaps the most attractive in the zoo - but all I was able to see over the course of several check-ins was an army of turtles.
Cape May was an enjoyable facility, but it felt lacking in some ways. At other zoos, I've seen exhibits that were built too small, but it was easy to see that the keepers were doing their best to work with what they had. At Cape May, many of the exhibits were quite spacious but seemed... empty. The coati exhibit, for instance, wasn't much smaller than any of the ones I've ever worked with, but the floor was concrete. It seemed a strange choice for animals that love to dig and root around. The leopard exhibit was tall - but it didn't have much in the way of climbing structures to take advantage of that height. It was basically a grassy field with a wooden platform in the middle. In the reptile house, I saw, for the first time ever, an eyelash viper on a platform. I've never seen one other than in the branches. Maybe I caught him at an awkward moment, but I would've loved to have seen more perching in that exhibit, branches of different diameters and heights.
I would certainly still find Cape May worth checking out again in the years to come. Lots of changes seem to be in the works. The big cat exhibits are in the process of being refurbished or reconstructed. The small primate exhibits are slated to be next. Right now, the zoo has an impressive collection in some very utilitarian exhibits. There's a lot there that's okay, very little that's remarkable or beautiful. It would be fantastic to see some originality and more emphasis on creature-comforts shine in the new exhibits.