Future of N.J. zoo in limbo, stoking concerns for animals this winter

How are the animals at a small zoo in Piscataway protected this winter?

As Middlesex County Commissioners were strewn with questions at their meeting last Thursday, animal safety during the colder months to come was the primary focus. As temperatures began to drop, residents wanted to know how park officials were handling animal welfare as the future of Johnson Park Zoo remains in limbo.

The zoo, called an “animal sanctuary” by the county and located in vast Johnson Park on the banks of the Raritan River, was inundated during Tropical Storm Ida in September – sparking calls to move the animals.

The county said no animals died or went missing in Johnson Park after the storm. However, animal activists, including members of the newly formed Friends of the Johnson Park Animals, have questioned those claims. The park’s zoo is also located in a flood-prone area, which puts the animals at inherent risk, according to members of the group.

The free petting zoo is home to over 90 animals, including deer, turkeys, rabbits, birds, goats, pigs, sheep, llamas, horses, and alpacas. It was due to close in October due to climate change concerns related to flooding. But Middlesex County officials blocked the shutdown, saying earlier this month that further assessments were needed.

Two petitions calling for the zoo to be closed in the interests of the animals have so far garnered more than 9,500 signatures.

More than a dozen sanctuaries have pledged to welcome the animals, but they are currently awaiting the last word from the county.

“With these freezing temperatures approaching and severe winter looming, I would like to know how do you plan to protect these animals from winter? And as I stand before you with a solution for them to come to my sanctuary today, as a self-proclaimed animal lover, why don’t you let them go? Rian Feldman, the founder of one of the shrines, Uncle Neil’s Home in Bridgeton, asked the commissioners at the meeting.

Feldman noted that she has measures in place at her sanctuary to keep the animals warm and comfortable, including a barn that runs on solar power and allows her to control the temperature. A member of the Friends of the Johnson Park Animals also noted that the sanctuaries, which have offered to take animals, have larger enclosures with more insulation.

County officials on Thursday allowed Feldman at Uncle Neil’s house to take the two pigs and ram she had pleaded for at the previous week’s meeting.

Earlier this year, RJ Stokley, owner of Celestial Acres in Long Valley, took a mother goat named Mamacita and two of her children, Ani and Vader, from the Johnson Park Zoo. Another goat, named Milton, was sent to Goats of Anarchy in Hampton.

A total of seven animals have been removed from the zoo since September.

“A concern that has always been at the forefront of my mind is allowing animals to breed. I’m sure the dog handlers are doing their best (at Johnson Park Zoo), but if you think of yourself as an animal shelter that welcomes animals or provides a home for some to live their last days, you shouldn’t reproduce yourself more, ”Stokley said Monday.

Animal friends at Johnson Park said they had not received details from county officials as to why the breeding took place at the park zoo. Organizers said they were specifically aware of the birth of deer and goats on the property.

Directing Commissioner Ronald Rios reiterated at the meeting that the county would hire a professional consultant to analyze local infrastructure and provide insight into what should be done at the park zoo. He said work on valuing the property would begin in January 2022 and an analysis should be completed by the end of March.

“One of our commissioners on the board here recommended… we get an independent review to see what is the best course of action for the animals, and for the animal shelter and / or other parks we have in our county park system, ”says Rios. “To see if we should shut it down completely or have a smaller animal shelter or move them all out of there.”

County officials said Havertown, Pa., Planning and consulting firm Zoo Advisors, and engineering consultant French & Parrello Associates were being considered for the assessment, which will also be incorporated into the county’s 2040 master plan. A resolution to appoint consultants for the analysis is expected at the next board meeting scheduled for December 30.

“The sanctuaries that have reached out to help these animals have dedicated a lot of time and money to make this possible … and this work was done before winter. Now we have to wait and it doesn’t seem like all of these animals have adequate shelter, ”said Sonya Elefante, volunteer for Friends of the Johnson Park Animals.

At the start of Thursday’s meeting, Rios said part of the reason the county decided not to close the zoo immediately was related to calls from some county residents who said they enjoyed visiting the park. .

When asked what preparations were in place for winter at the meeting, Rios declined to answer.

Rick Lear, director of the Middlesex County Parks and Recreation Office, told the meeting that the park’s zoo was in compliance, under federal inspections and employed vets to care for the animals.

Middlesex County officials did not immediately respond to requests for further comment.

“I think it would be in everyone’s best interest if we could separate some immediate needs from the overall holistic plan to save these animals as soon as possible,” said Eric Pearlman, a resident of Somerset.

Members of the Friends of the Johnson Park Animals said based on comments made at last week’s meeting, they expected responses on the location of the missing deer and rabbits within two weeks. While happy with the development Feldman could take on the ram and pigs, they are currently awaiting updates to help the remaining animals cope with the harshness of winter.

Stokley, in Long Valley, said based on her list and plans to add alpacas, she would no longer adopt animals from the Johnson Park Zoo. Still, she said she was monitoring the situation in Piscataway and caring about how the county was handling animal safety.

“My hope is that the animals will be placed in suitable sanctuaries,” Stokley said.

Mother family feeding Mamaciti goat and her children at Celestial Acres in Long Valley. The goats were moved from the Johnson Park Zoo earlier this year. Photo provided by RJ Stokley.

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Steven Rodas can be reached at srodas@njadvancemedia.com.

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