The seven-month saga that began when Tropical Storm Ida flooded a small Piscataway zoo last September appears to be coming to a close.
The zoo — an “animal haven” located in the sprawling 478-acre Johnson Park that’s free for visitors — will close after 73 years, the Middlesex County Board of Commissioners announced Thursday during its monthly meeting.
Dozens of animals that have called the zoo home for decades are in the process of being relocated to sanctuaries, but about 12 of the animals will be relocated to a new educational facility within the park’s borders, officials said. The park zoo holds deer, turkeys, rabbits, birds, goats, pigs, sheep, llamas and horses.
“We have mixed emotions. We’re definitely really happy and grateful for the animals who are going to sanctuaries … however, there are animals who are not going to the sanctuaries that we do have some concerns about still,” said Sonya Elefante, a volunteer for Friends of the Johnson Park Animals, a new group formed last fall that has fought to close the zoo.
The county made a similar closure announcement last October, citing the park zoo’s location within a flood zone and the “undeniable threat of climate change.” However, over a month later officials said they’d keep the zoo open while consultants assessed the possibility of moving the animals elsewhere within park grounds or shuttering it entirely.
The impact of Ida on the zoo spurred animal advocates to form friends of the Johnson Park Animals, saying the animals did not receive adequate care and were at risk simply by residing at the park. After the storm, organizers posted photos online of the mini-horse chest deep in brown water, as well as other animals dealing with flooding.
No animals died or went missing at Johnson Park zoo as a result of Ida, a county spokeswoman previously said. However, officials confirmed that about 17 miles away a pig died during the storm at Merrill Park in Woodbridge, another Middlesex County park that also houses animals.
Twenty-two years ago, ten horses at the Johnson Park zoo died as a result of flooding during Hurricane Floyd.
Calls to close the zoo, which is prone to flooding, have been shared for years by locals and were renewed following Ida. Still, some residents said they wanted to keep the park zoo open, Commissioner Director Ronald Rios said Thursday.
The hot-button issue was the focus of several commissioner meetings and led to at least three petitions and multiple protests.
Of the more than 90 animals that reside at the zoo, at least 11 were moved between the end of 2021 and last week. Earlier this month, four alpacas were transferred to Live Free Farm in Montgomery Township.
Last year, other sanctuaries stepped up to shelter animals — made possible through efforts led by organizer Jenna Trent. Goats of Anarchy took over ownership of a goat, RJ Stokley took on a mother goat and her two kids and Uncle Neil’s Home welcomed in two pigs and a ram.
Starting this week, officials will begin the process of relocating a few of the animals to a new nearby facility within Johnson Park and the rest to animal sanctuaries, Middlesex County officials said.
“We’re going to have Zoo Advisors investigate different sanctuaries to see which ones are suitable and willing to take (the animals),” Rios said Thursday.
Rios, who noted the county planned to start working “ASAP” to find new homes for the animals, said he expected the work to be completed within the next few weeks.
The new facility will be part of a new Historic Animal Husbandry Program at East Jersey Old Town Village, county officials said in a statement.
“East Jersey Old Town Village is a collection of historic structures from the 1700s and 1800s that through innovative exhibits, public programs and living history tells the story of Middlesex County,” the county said in a statement.
“The location at the village, out of the flood zone, has been identified for some of the animals,” the county added.
Two horses, three goats, six chickens and a cow will be moved to the facility, Elefante said.
The decision, the county said, was the result of an assessment conducted by Havertown, Pennsylvania, planning and consulting firm Zoo Advisors and Wall-based engineering consultant French & Parrello Associates. Both assessed park zoo operations and reviewed other county facilities, information which will also be folded into the county’s 2040 master plan.
Rios described the husbandry program as an “educational program.” Following concerns about animal care at Johnson Park zoo, he also noted that employees at the new facility — the same from the soon-to-close zoo — would receive additional training.
While some have expressed concerns about the potential for animals to be bred at the new location, Rios said breeding would not take place. Additionally, they will develop a plan for temporary relocation or other steps to keep the animals safe during inclement weather. He said fencing would also prevent people from feeding the animals, another concern of zoo critics.
“Another issue we have is the general care that the animals receive. In the past there have been situations where the animals were not given proper vet care in a timely fashion,” Elefante said.
Rick Lear, director of Middlesex County office of parks and recreation, said during a past commissioner’s meeting that the park zoo is in compliance, subject to federal inspections and employs veterinarians to care for the animals.
During an inspection on Jan. 27 of Johnson Park following resident complaints, an assistant biologist with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife said she was concerned with vegetables meant for the fallow deer that were found on the ground. An inspection of the doe enclosure at Thompson Park, another county park that houses animals, also found a hole in part of the fence.
An assistant biologist with the state Division of Fish and Wildlife lauded the conditions and animal care provided at both parks.
“All of the captive game and exotic and non-game animals at Johnson Park and Thompson Park appeared to be in good health. The enclosures allow the animals to perform their normal behavior pattern and prevent disease, liberation, or accidental injury to the animals and the public,” the state biologist wrote in a Feb. 2 letter to the county, obtained by NJ Advance Media via an Open Public Records Act request. “The animals are fed an adequate diet and are kept in clean enclosures.”
One resident asked commissioners Thursday what might Johnson Park zoo become once the animals were removed. Rios said it could serve multiple purposes but did not comment further.
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.
Steven Rodas may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @stevenrodasnj.