Take Me to the Cohanzick Zoo

By: Clyde Hughes, Reporter

African leopard siblings are just one of the attractions at the Cohanzick Zoo, which boasts of being New Jersey’s first zoo.

As their first birthday approaches this month, African leopards Nakia and Shuri appear to be having the time of their lives in their enclosure at Bridgeton’s Cohanzick Zoo.

Last week, the sisters, the zoo’s newest additions, seemed to stroll through every square inch of their surroundings, running and playfully pouncing on each other, suggesting the best of sibling rivalries. The two caught the attention of nearly every visiting group at the zoo that walked pass their area.

“They are very well loved,” said Kelly Shaw, the head keeper at the Cohanzick Zoological Society, of the spotted Nakai and the black fur-coated Shuri. “They are young, very playful and engaging. Visitors have fallen completely in love with them.”

The African leopards arrived last year from Pennsylvania and are one of the more popular stops as visitors meander around the zoo in Bridgeton City Park off Mayor Aitkin Drive. The leopards, with their huge claws and piercing stares, are in constant motion throughout the day.

The African leopard siblings are just one of the attractions at the Cohanzick Zoo, which bills itself at New Jersey’s first zoo. Established in 1934, Shaw and four of her zookeepers oversee about 100 animals. The zoo is part of Bridgeton’s Department of Recreation and Public Affairs.

According to Bridgeton’s development and planning director, Kevin Rabago, the Cohanzick Zoo is one of if not the most visited attraction in Cumberland County.

“The zoo is a very unique feature here,” Rabago said. “We emphasize that there is no charge to visit but there is a suggested contribution of $1. For families on a budget, they can come here and visit the zoo.

“They can visit the water park [Bridgeton Splash Park], which is across the parking lot. You have miniature golf, recreation fields, kayaking, basketball. You can spend an entire day or an entire weekend in our city park and entertain your family and children for under $15. I was shocked when I went to a movie and saw how much that cost,” Rabago added.

While the zoo is open year-round, Shaw said that the staff has been working to prepare for the spring and summer crowds along with some of its most popular programs.

Nakia and Shuri, the African leopards. PHOTO: Meredith Winner, Mer-Made Photography

“What we’re doing here now is trying to get ready for the crowds,” said Shaw, who added that crowds could reach upwards to 3,000 visitors during the weekends and special events. “We’re doing a lot of cleaning up and sprucing up around the zoo.”

The zoo’s popular Kids Fest will take place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 4. An exhibit by Dinosaurs Rock, which offers authentic learning experiences with actual dinosaur fossils and other specimens, will be on hand for children.

For $1, children will also enjoy the zoo’s regular animal encounters, watch the performing Lenni-Lenape dancers, and have their faces painted along with other attractions.

“It’s really cool because [Dinosaurs Rock] brings the museum to you,” Shaw said. “Kids get to come over and enjoy and learn about dinosaurs. There will be a lot of things to do and it gets them ready and excited about the summer season here.”

The zoo is also taking registration for its annual Summer Zoo Camp for children ages 5 through 14. The camp will run consecutive weeks from July 8 to August 2, providing participants with educational and engaging opportunities to learn about lives of different animals, their habitats, and the ecosystems in which they thrive.

Camper receive a complimentary T-shirt, crafts, games, and snacks through the day camp, which costs $75 per participant who are zoo members, and $100 for nonmembers.

The sessions are:

• Session 1: ages 5-6: July 8-12, 8 a.m. to noon

• Session 2: ages 5-6: July 8-12, 1-5 p.m.

• Session 3: ages 7-8: July 15-19, 8 a.m.-noon

• Session 4: ages 7-8: July 15-19, 1-5 p.m.

• Session 5: ages 9-11: July 22-26, 8 a.m.-noon

• Session 6: ages 9-11: July 22-26, 1-5 p.m.

• Session 7: ages 12-14: July 29-Aug. 2, 8 a.m.-noon

Rabago said that a new concession stand that opened in the middle of the season last year will have a full-year run with expanded offerings.

While various attractions draw visitors to the Cohanzick Zoo, Shaw said there is a natural connection between Bridgeton, visitors and the zoo that keeps people coming back.

“We talk to visitors every day and what we hear from them is how they came to the zoo when they were children and now they are bringing their children and their grandchildren,” Shaw said. “They tell us what kind of impact the zoo made on them and how it changed how they feel about animals.

“In a small community like this one, people have formed really close ties with and close emotional bonds with the animals here. Some have literally grown up with the animals here,” Shaw added.

Shaw mentioned the connection some had with the zoo’s white tigers, which spent nearly two decades at the zoo. Ganesha, the last white tiger, died in 2015 and his brother died in 2011. Their sister, Kali, was sent to the Moscow Zoo.

“We are fortunate because people really care about the zoo,” Shaw said, adding that visitors often contribute more than the suggested $1 donation for visiting Cohanzick. “They leave as much as they can and many times it’s significantly more than $1. People usually leave a couple of dollars. They definitely find value here.”

There are several things that zoo supporters can look for as well. Rabago mentioned the installation of zoo webcams, which have proven popular at other zoos around the country. The webcams will allow visitors to have a 24-hour peek at their favorite animals through livestreaming.

He also pointed out projects around the zoo that will improve the experience of visitors, such as the paving of Mayor Aitkin Drive and plans for solar panels and walking trails on top of the 65-foot-high capped landfill south of the zoo, once dubbed Mount Trashmore.

Rabago also pointed to improvements around Sunset Lake, installed sidewalks to the zoo and talks about improvements to the amphitheater that will make the area an even stronger attraction.

“In short, we have a lot of things happening at the city park, zoo and infrastructure around Sunset Lake,” Rabago said.

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