Last month, we reviewed the San Diego Zoo - one of the biggest, richest, most famous zoos on earth, one that is often cited as what a good zoo looks like. Just because a zoo isn't enormous, or world famous, or has three of every animal you've ever heard of doesn't mean it's not a good zoo, however. Not long after my visit to San Diego, I took a trip to a tiny little zoo that almost never makes the news... and enjoyed it very much.
Located almost in the shadow of New York City's skyscrapers, the little Bergen County Zoo is tucked away in Van Saun County Park in Paramus, New Jersey. Like many smaller zoos - Beardsley Zoo, Salisbury Zoo - it focuses on the animals of the Americas, as well as domestics. In fact, the first thing most visitors see upon entering (apart from a tiny reptile house) is a small barnyard area, with goats, donkeys, pigs, and a cow rooting around in stalls or shambling up to the fences to greet guests.
Most of the animals are seen along a single, looping trail. Several small exhibits (honestly nothing to write home about) hold small mammals and birds - North American porcupine, bobcat, coati, screech owl, and crow, among them. During the warmer months, American alligators occupy an outdoor exhibit (their winter housing is off-exhibit), while a walk-in aviary features roseatte spoonbills, egrets, wood ducks, and other wetland birds. A cul-de-sac behind the aviary leads to the puma habitat; if there was one animal that made an impression on me during the visit, it was the super-friendly mountain lion, who acted like I was a long-lost friend and greeted me enthusiastically, rubbing against the mesh.
Past the puma exhibit is a series of South American yards - guanaco, giant anteater, Baird's tapir, and a mixed-display of capybara, rhea, and brocket deer. The yards were all attractive enough on their own, but I was wondering why the zoo didn't open them all up into one large exhibit. Except for the brocket deer (which I had never seen before), I'd seen all of these species living together at other facilities. Maybe the zoo had a bad experience? I don't know... if it worked, it would have looked awesome, though.
Rounding out the Neotropics were black-handed spider monkeys, Andean condor, and a series of habitats for sloths and small primates. The sloth and tamarin exhibits were adjacent to glass-fronted winter-holding buildings, leaving the animals on display year round. Set among all of these exhibits is an attractive amphitheater for educational talks.
On the other side of the zoo, a small secondary trail loops past a prairie dog town towards a prairie overlook. The zoo's most attractive exhibit is it's simplest - a big field, grazed by bison and elk. Non-releasable bald eagles inhabit a side yard.
Bergen County is an excellent example of a small zoo. It doesn't try to take on too much or exhibit animals that are beyond its capacity or budget. Some of the smaller exhibits do look a bit knocked-together and could probably stand to be replaced, but even they aren't too bad. What I mostly remember aren't the enclosures, they are the animals, looking well-cared for and content - the puma brushing up to say hello, or a tapir splashing in the pool, or a condor sunning itself on a high perch.
The fact that this little oasis of a zoo stands so close to New York - and it's five zoos - as well as the much larger Turtle Back Zoo, just a few minutes' drive away, reinforces a treasured belief of mine: every little town needs a good little zoo.