I have been coming to the Turtle Back Zoo since I was in elementary school when we used to come here on field trips. I remember as a child having lunch on the lawn with my class and feeding the animals. That was back in the 1970’s with the old zoo set up. I had read that the zoo was falling apart by 1995 and they were ready to close it down. Like anything else, these zoos and parks need an update every few years to keep them relevant.
In 2000, as master plan was started in what direction the zoo wanted to go and in the next twenty years, I have seen the results of that hard work. You have many nicer displays, some still being too…
I know that this is not the traditional American holiday but somehow, I really enjoy Groundhog’s Day. It is a lot of fun to visit the zoos and if you ever can go out to Punxsutawney, PA to see the original festival try to do it. I went to Punxsutawney in 2016 and it really is an experience. It is one of those things you should do once in your life. I have been wanting to go back ever since but one thing after another has kept me from going. From the weather to my work schedule, it is tough to take the eight-and-a-half-hour hike down Route 80 but one day I will do it again.
COVID cancelled everything last year but since this is an outdoor event, it was nice to be celebrating the day being able to breathe again. I also wanted to do something different this year after going to the Staten Island Zoo for two years (2019 and 2020-see my write up on this blog). I had read about other Groundhog’s Day festivals and in 2019 I had heard about ‘Essex Ed’ at the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, NJ. The festival at the zoo had been cancelled last year because of the pandemic and when I looked at their website this year and nothing was mentioned. When I called, the woman on the phone said there would be a ceremony at the zoo at 10:00am so I prepared to go to the zoo the next day.
I had planned for what I thought would be an hour trip with traffic going through Newark, NJ and then the turn to Route 280 West. I walked out the door at 8:15am and ended up at the zoo at 9:00am. There was just a bit of traffic when I got into Downtown Newark and it was smooth driving when I got to Exit 10 and then no traffic into West Orange, NJ. This is where Turtle Back Zoo is located.
What surprised me when I got to the zoo was there was no one waiting to get in, no massive number of cars in the parking lot and when I got to the gate at 9:15am, there was no one there. One of the park employees said that they would be opening the gate at 9:45am and then they would start the program at 10:00am.
Since I had almost 45 minutes before the gates would even open, I decided to take a walk around the reservoir that is part of the South Mountain Reservation Park. It was about a mile around the frozen watershed, and I walked about half before I headed back to buy my ticket. What a cool crisp morning. The sun started to peek out as I walked back to the zoo and the woods looked so beautiful with the snow on the ground and trees.
I got into the zoo at 9:45am and headed to the antitheater and there was a small handful of people. It ended up the only people at the ceremony were the volunteer docents, the staff of the zoo, the local politicians and the press. There were maybe six of us who had come for the event. I remembered that there was nothing on the zoo’s website two days before so how would the public know this would be taking place?
Unlike the pageantry of Punxsutawney with bands and comedians and even the children’s choir like at the Staten Island Zoo, the whole ceremony took ten minutes. The county parks commission said a few words, then the County Executive said a few words and then the zoo events commissioner spoke.
Then they introduced “Edwina from Essex”, who had replaced “Essex Ed” this year upon his retirement. I was not sure if the other groundhog was just too old or something else, but the new groundhog came out and was so cute and innocent. She just walked around the small platform and then looked at all of us. The parks commission read a poem from the groundhog. Then it was announced that she predicted an early spring! Everyone applauded and then that was it. Everyone dispersed.
Edwina of Essex at the Turtle Back Zoo made her appearance today
I was a little surprised that there was not more to the ceremony but later I talked with one of the staff members of the zoo and she told me that there are never that many people who come to this ceremony. I told her that more people would come if they made a bigger deal out of it. There was nothing on the website or on the events calendar leading the to the event and that I had to call in. She just smiled.
I had not been to the zoo in about five years, and I just walked around for the next hour watching the animals. I started at the Reptile House and looked at all the lizards and snakes since they were in season right now. The staff was available to us if there were any questions. It was nicely set up and I have to say that those snakes and lizards really do look you over.
The Turtle Back Zoo is a nice walk in the winter
I made my way past the closed carousel and the restaurant, The Savanna Cafe and looked over the bison display. That was very interesting as it was feeding time for them, so they paid no attention to us. I then went to the flamingo pond and what elegant birds. They were talking to one another like we were not there watching them. They just walked around and talked amongst themselves.
The pink flamingos stood guard that afternoon
The wolves were not out, and the poor cougars looked so cold and bored. They just walked around in the snow. In the Petting Zoo, I watched the chickens and the goats. I have never had animals look me over the way the rams did. They just stared at me like I was an alien from Outerspace.
The otters and seals were outside and were going through their feeding when I walked by, and they seemed very active. They just watched us as they were eating and then swam in the pools but again, I could see how cold they were outside, and they made their way into their burros.
I walked to the Penguin House and that was a lot of fun. They were also going through their feeding and when they were done, they just dove around the small group of us and looking us over with curiosity. They also looked bored and were so happy to have someone to interact with that afternoon. They just swam right up to me and stared at me through the water. I felt like they were trying to tell me something with the way they were splashing around.
My last stop in the zoo was the Sea Turtle Recovery building. It was so nice to see the outreach that the zoo makes to help these animals get better before they are released back into the wild. We have been affecting their habitat so much with over-fishing that they are getting tangled in nets and hit by boats.
The whole tour of the zoo took about an hour and it was a nice walk. The sun had come out by this point and the skies started to clear. After I finished at the zoo, I decided to take a full walk around the reservoir and took a left and walked all around it. What a nice day for a stroll.
I started getting hungry and did not know what was around the zoo. I had not noticed the pizzeria or the McDonalds across the street from the zoo when I entered. With the restaurant being closed in the zoo, I stopped at McLoone’s Boathouse at 9 Cherry Lane on the other side of the reservoir from the zoo. It looked closed to me from the walk, but I heard music and decided to investigate. What a nice lunch!
McLoone’s Boathouse is right on the reservoir path located in the park and the bar area has the nicest views of the park. The inside of the restaurant was rustic with a main dining room with a roaring fire going in the fireplace. The large bar area had high-tops where you had views of the reservoir.
My server, Nikki, could not have been nicer. We had such a wonderful conversation, and she was so on top of things. She made some good recommendations for lunch, and I had a Grilled Cheddar Cheese with Short Ribs and a Coke. The sandwich really hit the spot on a cool afternoon. You could taste the red wine that the short ribs had marinated in. It accented the sharp cheese so well and the crisp buttery bread. The side salad was a nice substitute for French fries.
The Grilled Cheese with Short Ribs at McLoone’s Boathouse is excellent!
While I was eating it was a pleasure to watch the people walk by having a nice stroll in the park. I can tell between COVID and the snow, people needed to get out of the house. Smiling faces were the thing that I saw as people passed by.
After I finished lunch, it was home for me. Even though it was a smaller ceremony, it was nice to see the groundhog again. Maybe ‘Edwina from Essex’ will be right, and it will be an early spring. The next six weeks will tell.
Happy Groundhog’s Day!
My other Groundhog’s Day blogs:
Day Thirty-Seven: Happy Groundhog’s Day from Punxsutawney, PA