By MADDY VITALE
For three months, the Cape May County Zoo animals have had no guests, no time in the public eye to showcase what makes them special, and no time for families to view the different species and find out what defines them and makes their existence so important to the world.
A team of zookeepers and two veterinarians have continued to care for the 500 animals throughout the COVID-19 restrictions, all the while working in split shifts and spending hours making sure the animals got the optimum amount of stimulation and attention many were accustomed to before many public places were temporarily closed due to safety precautions.
On Thursday, Cape May County government announced the reopening of the Cape May County Zoo. At 10 a.m. on Saturday, with new safety precautions in place to keep visitors, staff and the animals safe, the entrance to the zoo will open once again.
“We have these animals here for the public to make a connection with them and to hopefully realize they are worth saving and conserving. That is our mission and we are finally able to get back to that,” Associate Veterinarian Dr. Alex Ernst said in a Thursday phone interview.
“Coronavirus is a very valuable lesson for all of us. Wildlife, endangered animals, were exploited in another country, and the virus made the jump to humans. Endangered species are all over the planet. Many of them are here in Cape May County. We have to maintain these animals,” Ernst added.
Ernst noted that the zoo staff was fantastic during the zoo’s closure and said they have a true dedication for taking care of the animals.
At all times, the staff has been wearing, and will continue to wear, the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), he said.
He pointed out that during the closure, it was difficult for him and the staff.
“To say it has been challenging is an understatement. But we weren’t in this alone. The entire country went through a trying time,” Ernst said. “Our team here at the zoo has a love and obligation to these animals and we showed up every day.”
The veterinarian said he can’t wait until the weekend.
“The zoo is ready. The animals are ready for visitors and we are excited,” Ernst said. “We hope when people come back, they appreciate the zoo even more. It will be quite a moment when we get to open the gates again.”
In April, the zoo brought “Virtual Zoo School” to the public, giving families a view of the adventures and lessons of the animals into homes with a click on the zoo website www.cmczoo.com.
Families were able to view daily “episodes” featuring zookeepers and other staff feeding the animals and describing the special qualities of each type of animal.
While “Virtual Zoo School” kept the public engaged, it just is not the same as when people visit in person, Cape May County Freeholder E. Marie Hayes, liaison to the zoo, explained Thursday.
“Our guests have been waiting for the day that we could reopen the zoo. The staff has done a wonderful job in the time we have been closed caring for the animals and creating dozens of virtual zoo videos for schools,” Hayes said. “But there is no substitute for the real thing. People will now be able to go back to our zoo this weekend.”
Hayes reiterated Ernst’s words about the dedicated staff.
“It is not a job to them. They love those animals. They love having people come to the park and zoo,” she said. “The animals are their family. Our two veterinarians never missed a beat. The park and zoo, in Cape May County and in the state, is a gem.”
Freeholder Director Gerald M. Thornton said it is “a proud day to say that we are reopening the Cape May County Zoo.”
In addition to the zoo reopening, the Tree to Tree Adventure Park — an aerial adventure and zip line will also reopen.
“I was talking daily with the governor’s office and Freeholder Hayes on this issue. I want to commend Freeholder Hayes, who was a strong voice in reopening the zoo, and the entire zoo staff, for the hard work they have put into getting reopened and the plans put in place to keep everyone safe,” Thornton said.
Some of the safety measures being put in place now include asking every guest over two years old to wear a mask when visiting the zoo. This is for the protection of both the guests and animals, as some of the species are known to be the susceptible to the virus.
Guests are asked to maintain social distancing from other groups and families when visiting.
A one-way directional flow throughout the zoo has been set up to reduce the amount of interactions between guests where possible. Capacity of the zoo will be watched closely to ensure it doesn’t get overcrowded with guests. Also, the Aviary and Reptile House will remain closed at this time.
The zoo is free to the public but relies heavily on donations. For more information or to make a donation to the zoo visit www.cmczoo.com.