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County Breaks Ground for 'Big Cat' Exhibit

$3 million project to open in September

Jaguars, cougars, snow leopards — oh, my!

Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. broke ground Thursday for a new, $3 million "Big Cat Country Complex" and aerial adventure course at Turtle Back Zoo.

"It's about bringing quality life for the people of Essex County," he said to at least 50 people gathered under a tent outside the construction site. "No longer do people need to go outside of Essex County. They stay right here."

The plan also calls for adobe-themed restrooms that will prevent zoo-goers from having to leave the exhibit.

The cat country complex will feature cougars and jaguars in mesh netting and glass enclosures on display. The Southwest Mine-themed exhibit also will include a hot rock, eight holding cages, safety mirrors and a seating area.

Essex County Turtle Back Zoo Director Dr. Jeremy Goodman said the exhibit, including the holding area, will be approximately 7,500-square-feet in size and will include two new jaguars and two of the zoo's existing cougars.

The cougars will be transferred from the zoo's Asian exhibit because the cats are not from Asia. Goodman said the zoo will replace the cougars with one new snow leopard, which is from Asia. All the cats are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Plan Programs, according to Goodman.

"The only (cats) we won't have because of their size and other requirements are lions and tigers," he said. "The reason we chose those species was because of their husbandry needs."

Goodman said the exhibit's cat species are adaptable to the winter weather compared to lions and tigers, which must be housed "for a good portion of the year."

The aerial adventure course includes zip lines, a suspension bridge and a sales shed, according to the preliminary plans. Mike Piga, of French and Parrello in Wall, said there will be 25 different challenges in the course.

DiVincenzo said the adventure area will have a separate admission fee similar to the area's Safari miniGOLF course. He said the aerial course will operate independently and have a separate entrance from the zoo to accommodate visitors who wanted to avoid the zoo altogether.

He said the course may bring in roughly $250,000 a year in revenue.

Goodman stressed the exhibit and adventure course will include educational components for visitors.

"Everything we do here … this is not just an amusement attraction … everything we do is about education," he said. "We will teach them about tree-top exploration, about the reservation, about how scientists study animals in the tree-top, in the midst of recreation."

The new exhibit also will include an elk enclosure. The enclosure, which DiVincenzo said will open in 2012, will include four elks surrounded by a 10-foot high chain link fence and a wood pavilion with four stalls. County officials said that exhibit is phase two of the project.

DiVincenzo said the $3 million for the big cats and the obstacle course will be paid for through capital dollars that were allocated for the project and through Open Space grants.

The complex is set to open in September.

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