Turtle Back Zoo

Coordinates: 40°46′3″N 74°16′55″W / 40.76750°N 74.28194°W / 40.76750; -74.28194
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Turtle Back Zoo
Turtle Back Zoo logo
The current entrance to the Turtle Back Zoo, opened in 2019.
40°46′3″N 74°16′55″W / 40.76750°N 74.28194°W / 40.76750; -74.28194
Date opened1963; 60 years ago (1963)[1]
LocationWest Orange, New Jersey, United States
No. of animalsApproximately 1,400[2]
Annual visitors755,000 (2016)[3]

Turtle Back Zoo is a zoo in West Orange, New Jersey. Situated on 20 acres (8.1 ha) in the South Mountain Reservation,[2] it is part of the South Mountain Recreation Complex, which is managed as part of the Essex County Park System, the oldest county park system in the United States. Founded in 1963, the zoo was originally a showcase for animals indigenous to the New York metropolitan area, but currently features species from every continent except Antarctica. As of 2018, it houses approximately 1400 animals, including several hundred birds in a free-flight aviary.[2] Located adjacent to the Richard J. Codey Arena, former practice home of the New Jersey Devils, the zoo is open year-round, weather permitting.

The Turtle Back Zoo has been an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) since 2006. In 2017, the zoo became an accredited member of ZAA (Zoological Association of America).[1]


Old entrance to the Turtle Back Zoo, renovated in 2018.

Turtle Back Zoo, which took its name from a nearby rock formation, opened in 1963 with a collection of 140 animals representing 40 species.[2] It was originally opened seasonally and had a Hans Christian Andersen "storybook theme," with such exhibits as "a giant piggy bank, the ABC house, [and] the pirates’ ship".[2] By 1973 the zoo was home to 850 animals representing 275 species.[1]

In 1975, the Zoological Society of New Jersey was established to help promote the zoo and provide funding. Despite this, Turtle Back Zoo fell into disrepair, and was almost shut down in 1995.[citation needed]

In 2000, the zoo created a master plan with the objective of improving the zoo enough to receive accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Between 2003 and 2006, Turtle Back received approximately $20 million in funding, which was used to improve the facilities, and in 2006 the zoo received its first accreditation. New facilities included the Essex County Animal Hospital on zoo grounds, and a new 11,000-square-foot (1,000 m2) entrance/administrative complex with a 4,000-square-foot (370 m2) reptile center, classrooms, and an auditorium.[1]

In 2016, zoo attendance exceeded 700,000 visitors for the first time in its history.[5]

Expansion controversy[edit]

Residents of Essex County have lobbied for expansion of the zoo to cease, citing traffic congestion and disruption of the surrounding South Mountain Reservation. In July 2019, Essex County officials announced the construction of a proposed amphitheater, grizzly bear exhibit, and overnight camping.[6] Essex County officials reported in September 2019 that as a result of the backlash, the amphitheater was scaled back, though no exact details were released.[7] Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the amphitheater were put on hold in 2020.[8]


Various goats inside the Essex Farm
One of the zoo's peacocks, which roam freely within the zoo grounds

Exhibits include an American black bear exhibit; the Essex Farm, which holds common farm animals and includes a petting zoo; and the Tropical Currents Aquarium, which exhibits fish from around the world in six large tanks; African Adventure's first enclosure which exhibits Masai giraffes, Eland, Ostriches, White-faced whistling ducks and Bontebok.[5]

Reptile center[edit]

The $4.6 million reptile house and education center, the zoo's first indoor exhibit, opened in June 2006. When the 4,000-square-foot (370 m2) reptile center opened, it contained a pair of nine-foot-long "black dragons", a species of monitor lizard which was discovered in Malaysia in 2005 and has yet to receive a scientific name.[9] The Reptile House contains amphibians like the Eastern hellbender, some birds, and other reptiles including the Caiman lizard and a rare African dwarf crocodile.

Island Giants[edit]

Island Giants is a new sub-attractional exhibit which opened in September 2023. It is the new home for the Komodo dragon and American alligator, the former which was previously housed inside the Reptile Center. Three Malayan gharials, which also previously lived at the Reptile Center, are located in an indoor exhibit located next to the American alligator. Island Giants alder serves as the new home for the three Aldabra tortoises.

Amazing Asia[edit]

This regional exhibit is home to gibbons, red pandas, clouded leopards, a pygmy slow loris, and an amur and snow leopard exhibit. The gibbon habitat, a $1.8 million exhibit that opened in 2009 as the first exhibit for Amazing Asia, contains an 11,000-square-foot (1,000 m2) outdoor mesh tent habitat that is home to the zoo's five white-cheeked gibbons.[10] The leopard exhibit is one of the latest exhibits, opening in 2018. After Amazing Asia was renovated in September 2022, the exhibit allowed the zoo's red pandas and clouded leopards to have more room to roam.[11][12]

African Adventure[edit]

In May 2016, the zoo opened their three-acre African Adventure attraction.[13] The $7 million addition is designed to mimic an African Savannah and contains four Masai giraffes.[14] In addition the exhibit contains: eland, bongo, a pair of Abyssinian ground hornbills, White-faced whistling ducks, ostriches, bonteboks, and an Aldabra giant tortoise.[15] As of spring 2017, this ancient exhibit includes lions and a pack of spotted hyenas.[16][17]

Shores of Africa[edit]

Shores of Africa forms part of the African Adventure and features a penguin enclosure that's home to Pink-backed pelicans and is full of African penguins that swim in an indoor pool. Guests are able to experience underwater viewing while watching the penguins. This small dark exhibit is also home to a Lesser bushbaby.

Sea lions and Touch tank[edit]

This exhibit features an 82,000-gallon pool for California sea lions and a 1,600-gallon touch tank for sting rays and small sharks, along with space for education programs and special events. This $5.5 million exhibit was opened in 2013.[18]

Big Cat Country[edit]

The exhibit features cougars and jaguars and has a Southwest United States theme. The animals’ area has rock outcroppings, a waterfall and indigenous Southwest plantings. Viewing areas resemble a southwest mine or cave and stamped concrete pathways for visitors resemble a southwest trail. The big cat area has an indoor winter refuge area for the animals and secure holding areas. It also is being used as a breeding facility. This $3 million exhibit was opened in 2011.[19]

Drill family flamingo exhibit[edit]

In the summer of 2018, the zoo opened a new exhibit for the American and Chilean flamingo mixed flock. The current flamingo habitat was the zoo's old penguin exhibit, which got demolished and replaced by a home for new tropical birds.

Other attractions[edit]

Turtle Back Zoo Railroad attraction.
Endangered Species Carousel attraction.
The train (above) and carousel (below) at Turtle Back Zoo

There are several attractions at the zoo, including a train ride, carousel, and playground. All the zoo's attractions are part of the South Mountain Recreation Complex.

The Turtle Back Zoo Railroad is a 2 ft (610 mm) narrow gauge railroad attraction that opened with the rest of the zoo in 1963. The railroad originally operated two S-24 Iron Horse trains manufactured by Allan Herschell. These were replaced in 1984 and 1999 by two C. P. Huntington trains manufactured by Chance Rides. In April 2015, the railroad received a third C. P. Huntington locomotive from a Livingston resident as part of a program to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's death.[20] From 2019 to 2020, the railroad was renovated to make room for a third parking deck, including a realignment of a portion of the route, a renovated platform, and a new train maintenance building. In 2020, Investors Bank (now part of Citizens Financial Group) became the official sponsor of the railroad.[21]

The Endangered Species Carousel, a custom carousel built by Chance Rides and opened in 2008, is located inside a beautiful classic carousel house with mosaic floors and stained glass windows. Riders are seated on one of 30 endangered species, which includes pandas, alligators, and tigers.

On September 25, 2010, the Turtle Back Zoo opened the Essex County Safari MiniGolf course. Designed by French & Parrello Associates, P.A., the miniature golf course replicates three African regions: the Sahara Desert, the African Grasslands, and the Congo located to the center is Mount Kilimanjaro. The miniature golf course consists of 19 holes and contains various animal sculptures, such as a camel, an elephant, a gorilla, a lion and more.[22]

In the following years, the zoo opened several more facilities, including the Treetop Adventure Ropes Course in September 2011,[23] an education center in July 2014,[24] and a new 15,000 square foot, $2 million, sea turtle recovery center in 2016.[25]

A $2 million on-site veterinary hospital includes a full surgery suite, in addition to x-ray and ultrasound facilities.[2] In May 2022, it was renamed as the “Essex County Barry H. Ostrowsky Animal Wellness Center”, in honor of the president and CEO of RWJBarnabas Health. Construction of a second hospital, which will share the same name as the first hospital, began in October 2023 and is expected to be completed in Fall 2024.[26]


  1. ^ a b c d "History". turtlebackzoo.com. Turtle Back Zoo. Archived from the original on 4 August 2011. Retrieved 30 September 2010.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Yarmove, Hillel L. (7 March 2012). "Keeper of the Flame: An interview with Dr. J. D. Goodman, director of the Turtle Back Zoo, skilled veterinarian, and president of the West Orange Eruv Society". Hamodia Magazine. pp. 12–16. Archived from the original on 9 March 2012. Retrieved 31 March 2012.
  3. ^ With new Essex giraffes, a state-of-the-art barn and added revenue
  4. ^ "Currently Accredited Zoos and Aquariums". aza.org. AZA. Retrieved 29 September 2010.
  5. ^ a b "Essex County Executive Divincenzo Announces Turtle Back Zoo Attendance Breaks 700,000 For First Time". essexcountynj.org. Dec 14, 2015. Archived from the original on January 31, 2016. Retrieved 31 May 2023.
  6. ^ Proctor, Owen. "Turtle Back Zoo may expand African Adventure, add camping". North Jersey Media Group. Retrieved 2020-10-29.
  7. ^ "Turtle Back Zoo 'Habitat' Amphitheater Has Been Scaled Back, County Official Reports". The Village Green. 2019-09-10. Retrieved 2020-10-29.
  8. ^ "Turtle Back Zoo Amphitheater Project 'On Hold,' Official Says". West Orange, NJ Patch. 2020-05-26. Retrieved 2020-10-29.
  9. ^ Essex County Executive DiVincenzo Recounts Historic Year at Essex County Turtle Back Zoo, Essex County, February 7, 2008 - accessed May 15, 2012
  10. ^ Read, Philip (24 September 2009). "$1.8M gibbons apes exhibit opens at Essex County Turtle Back Zoo". nj.com. The Star-Ledger.
  11. ^ "$3.7M Expansion at Turtle Back Zoo Moves Forward, Despite Critics". 29 October 2021.
  12. ^ "$3.7M Exhibit At Turtle Back Zoo Has Red Pandas, Leopards, Slow Loris". West Orange, NJ Patch. 2022-09-08. Retrieved 2023-03-26.
  13. ^ Turtle Back Zoo welcomes 4 giraffes
  14. ^ Giraffes Arrive At Turtle Back Zoo In N.J.
  15. ^ PHOTOS: African Adventure Exhibit — with Giraffes — Opens at Turtle Back Zoo
  16. ^ N.J.’s Turtle Back Zoo Will Get Lions, Hyenas: $3.6M Exhibit Planned
  17. ^ "Turtle Back' Zoo's African Adventure Exhibit Recognized for Excellence in Design". TAPinto. Retrieved 2019-04-04.
  18. ^ "Sea Lion sound exhibit opens at Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange". 11 April 2013.
  19. ^ "Big Cat Country Exhibit Opens at Turtle Back Zoo".
  20. ^ "Livingston Resident Donates New Locomotive to the Essex County Turtle Back Zoo". TAPinto. Retrieved 2017-07-27.
  21. ^ "Miniature Train Ride at Turtle Back Zoo Gets Official Sponsor". TAPinto. Retrieved 2020-10-29.
  22. ^ Read, Philip (16 September 2010). "Turtle Back Zoo mini-golf course is latest West Orange rebranding effort". nj.com. The Star-Ledger.
  23. ^ Yi, K. (September 29, 2011). "Treetop Adventure Course Open Today". MaplewoodPatch. Archived from the original on April 25, 2012. Retrieved 2011-10-21.
  24. ^ "Gov. Christie, DiVincenzo Attend Opening of Zoo Education Center".
  25. ^ $2M rescue at N.J. zoo to rehab sick sea turtles
  26. ^ https://www.tapinto.net/towns/west-orange/sections/arts-and-entertainment/articles/county-to-construct-barry-h-ostrowsky-animal-wellness-center-at-turtle-back-zoo

External links[edit]