I'll admit, I was a little underwhelmed when I first walked in the gate. The African penguin exhibit wasn't terribly impressive, nor was the nearby bison paddock. There was a hawk in a corn-crib cage, as well as a"closed for the season" butterfly habitat. The prairie dog exhibit did catch my eye - it was a unique, hill-shaped structure with a visitor tunnel cutting right through the middle, allowing visitors to pop up in the middle of the habitat and watch the scurrying rodents eye-to-eye. But no, I don't think I was that impressed the first hundred yards or so. Then I hit the bears.
I consider bears - large, intelligent, destructive, and easily bored - to be some of the most difficult animals to build a good display for. And so I mean this as a great compliment - I consider the American black bear exhibit at the Turtle Back Zoo to be the finest bear exhibit I have ever seen. It wasn't just the enclosure - a sprawling patch of New Jersey forest with several sizable trees and grassy expanses. It was the presentation. Visitors view the bears from inside a suburban house, where the TV is playing a bear documentary and the bears are visible from out the glass patio door. The house serves as an educational classroom for how humans and bears can coexist peaceably. If you can't see the bears from the patio, don't worry - take a rambling walk along the nature trail, which offers several scenic viewpoints into the habitat. You might also catch a glimpse of a red fox sharing the exhibit; I'd heard of mixed-species exhibits with bears, but this is the first I've ever seem in person, and I loved it.
A tour through the wilds of New Jersey continues with bobcats, bald eagles, ravens, and North American porcupines, before the path turns back to a large, wooded gray wolf exhibit. The wolves were in fine form that morning, curiously nosing visitors through the viewing windows, then trotting off, only to come back a short while later. More large carnivores were to be seen just down the trail in side-by-side habitats for puma and jaguar. The exhibits were designed to resemble a mining camp in the southwestern US; I'd never seen a zoo do a desert jaguar display. Even though it is accurate (jaguars do inhabit the borderlands of the American southwest), I do prefer rainforest exhibits, as they usually incorporate more climbing structures, whereas desert displays tend to be less complex.
Turtle Back is one of the most kid-friendly large zoos I've ever visited, with lots of opportunities for interaction. Around the corner I discovered a petting barn, a budgie-feeding aviary (surrounded by exhibits of kangaroo, emu, and wallaby), and a prehistoric-themed playground, where parents can take a breather while their kids scramble across the fake dinosaur bones.
Past the playground is the zoo's Asian area, where red pandas shuffle through the pine trees and snow and Amur leopards inhabit mesh-enclosed yards, complete with rock formations and trickling water features. Completing the trail are muntjac deer, white-naped cranes, and a towering display of white-cheeked gibbons. The gibbon exhibit also includes an indoor habitat, resembling the ruins of a southeast Asian temple.
Turtle Back Zoo gets its name in reference to an Iroquoian creation legend, which states that North America is actually standing on the back of an enormous turtle. It is perhaps with respect to that legend that the zoo boasts of a sea turtle hospital, where stranded or cold-stunned sea turtles can be nursed back to health before they are released back into the wild. Right next door is a building housing a touch-tank of sharks and rays, overlooking the zoo's sea lion pool. Scattered around these structures are habitats for American alligators, North American river otters, scarlet ibises, and a small tropical aquarium building.
More reptiles can be seen in the Reptile House, perhaps the finest I've ever seen for a zoo this size. The Komodo dragons steal the show in their enormous exhibit, taking up an entire wall of the building. The remaining exhibits are divided between fan-favorites, such as a giant reticulated python, and several obscure, seldom-seen species, such as New Guinea ground boa. The most popular animals in the building are probably the sloths, which occupy a mixed-species exhibit with caiman lizard, red-footed tortoise, and a few species of bird (if I have one major complaint about Turtle Back, it is that the zoo has almost zilch in the way of a bird collection). Located immediately outside the Reptile House is the zoo train station.
If Turtle Back Zoo didn't have enough to attract visitors, even more animals are on their way. Nearby the Reptile House is the first phase of African Adventure, a spacious grassy paddock with ostrich, eland, and giraffe. Peppered across the zoo were the signs of fresh construction projects, hinting at the promise that the zoo has many more surprises in store. The zoo boasts of tremendous support from the local community and local government, which is fueling its rapid development. If the new exhibits keep the pace with the recently opened ones, Turtle Back may prove a serious challenger to the WCS zoos across the river in New York City. At any rate, it will continue to shine as perhaps the finest mid-sized zoo in the Northeastern states.