Had I not been in New Jersey last weekend for a family function, I never would have set aside time to take my kids to the Turtle Back Zoo, and that would have been a shame.
The Essex County zoo has been reluctantly running under the radar since it opened more than 48 years ago, but it’s had a few watershed moments these last six years, including opening an animal hospital in 2005, receiving prestigious accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association the following year, and opening its renovated Australian exhibit in summer 2008. The latter caught my attention, because I hadn’t taken my family with me to Australia in February and was excited for them to see kangaroos.
What I had somehow forgotten was that the kangaroos I had encountered in the Southern Hemisphere were aggressively lethargic, and their West Orange cousins seemed to be honoring what’s evidently a global understanding among domesticated kangaroos that they don’t hop unless they feel like it. We saw more animal action from what my 8-year-old accurately described as the “big gigantic pig” in the Essex Farm exhibit.
Our Australian experience took a surprising turn when we entered the aviary with its hundreds of grass parakeets, also known as budgies. With a bit of coaxing, there's a good chance one of the birds will land on your feed stick (purchasable for $2 each), a tongue depressor partially coated with herb and grass seeds. Gently hold your stick flat and parallel to a budgie’s tiny feet, and the birdie will probably agree to climb on, as it did for my four-year-old.
An exhibit sign promises that the budgies are friendly, and they are, ensuring an up close and personal experience free of angry birds. While the aviary setup may seem low key, it ranks right up there with the better interactive animal experiences I’ve had with my kids at the San Diego and Bronx Zoos. Your child won’t soon forget the sensation of a bird eating out of his hand, and you likewise won’t forget the look on his face when it does.
The zoo is 20 miles west of Manhattan by car, and the zoo grounds are manageable enough by foot to knock off in an afternoon. Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for kids. Although the zoo is open year round, the outdoor aviary is only open from mid-May to late September.
Is your local zoo underappreciated? Leave a comment in this post, describing the zoo's absolute why-go attraction, and I’ll plan on pulling together a round-up of the best reader recommendations.