Essex County Opens New Bald Eagle Exhibit at Turtle Back Zoo

by The Village Green
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From Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr.: 

Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. announced the opening of a new Bald Eagle Exhibit at Essex County Turtle Back Zoo on Wednesday, March 10th. In addition, DiVincenzo welcomed Freedom, a 4-year-old Bald Eagle, to the Turtle Back animal family. Freedom was rescued from a tree in Minnesota after becoming tangled in rope and branches.

Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. (fourth from right) announced the opening of a new Bald Eagle Exhibit at Essex County Turtle Back Zoo on Wednesday, March 10th. In addition, DiVincenzo welcomed Freedom, a 4-year-old Bald Eagle, to the Turtle Back animal family. Freedom was rescued from a tree in Minnesota after becoming tangled in rope and branches. Cutting the ceremonial ribbon at the dedication with the County Executive is Silver Gonzalez, daughter of NJ State Senator and Deputy Chief of Staff Teresa Ruiz (right). With them are (from left) Deputy Zoo Director Eric Mowatt, Carlos Jr. and Mario Pomares, NJ Zoological Society Executive Director Adam Kerins, Commission Vice President Carlos Pomares, Commissioner Len Luciano, Zoo Director Jillian Fazio, Commission President Wayne Richardson, Deputy Parks Director Kate Hartwyk and Commissioner Brendan Gill. In the tree behind them is Freedom, a 4-year-old bald eagle that was rescued in Minnesota and brought to Turtle Back Zoo. (Photo courtesy of Essex County)

“We are pleased to open a new and improved Bald Eagle Exhibit in our Wild New Jersey area. This will enhance our visitors’ experience and provide them with a better viewing area to see the bald eagles,” DiVincenzo said. “Welcoming Freedom as the newest member of our animal family displays the important role that zoos have in conservation efforts and raising awareness about the dangers that threaten wildlife and the environment,” he added.

Joining the County Executive at the dedication were NJ State Senator and Deputy Chief of Staff Teresa Ruiz and Essex County Board of County Commissioners President Wayne Richardson, Vice President Carlos Pomares and Commissioners Brendan Gill and Len Luciano.

The Bald Eagle Exhibit was damaged during a storm in 2019. Since the exhibit was created as part of the Wild New Jersey area in 2007, animal care standards have evolved. To repair the exhibit and update its design to meet current requirements, a new Eagle Exhibit was created. The tree in the center of the exhibit provides the eagles with a place to perch and an accompanying structure provides indoor space to hold the birds if they ever need to be removed the exhibit area. Work started in August 2020 and took five months to complete.

“As the new Turtle Back Zoo Director, it is exciting to be opening a new exhibit and welcoming an animal with such a compelling story,” Turtle Back Zoo Director Jillian Fazio said. “Thank you to County Executive for giving me this opportunity and for his continued investment to make Turtle Back the family-friendly and educational resource it has become,” she added.

The engineering firm of French and Parrello from Wall received a professional services contract for $81,500 to design the new exhibit and provide inspection services during construction. ZN Construction from Saddle Brook was awarded a publicly bid contract for $1,272,000 to perform the construction work. The project was funded with a grant from the Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund.

Turtle Back is welcoming a 4-year-old eagle named Freedom to the new exhibit. Four years ago, Freedom became entangled in a rope and was discovered hanging upside down in a tree in Minnesota. He would have died if he were left hanging there. He was saved by U.S. Army veteran Jason Galvin who noticed the trapped bird while driving by. Galvin called local police and fire departments and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to rescue the eagle, but none were able to help because of how high up in the tree the bird was caught. With permission from the MN Department of Natural Resources, Galvin, an Army sharpshooter, used a .22 caliber rifle to shoot through the branches and ropes in which Freedom was tangled. It took 150 shots fired over the course of 90 minutes to free the bird. Freedom survived the 75-foot fall from the tree and was taken by Galvin and his wife to the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center where he has been living and recovering for the last four years.

Freedom joins female eagle Adak, who came to Turtle Back Zoo in 1997 from the Bergen County Zoo.

Turtle Back Zoo is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tickets are $14 for adults, $12 for senior citizens over 62 and children ages 2 to 12, and free for children under 2. To promote social distancing, tickets must be purchased in advance at https://turtlebackzoo.com/admission-hours/. For more information, visit www.essexcountynj.org/turtlebackzoo or call 973-731-5800.

Essex County Turtle Back Zoo has roared back to life from the verge of closure by a previous administration. Attendance reached an all-time high of 907,522 in 2017 and the zoo has operated as a self-sustaining facility with revenue collected exceeding operating expenses. In addition, Turtle Back is accredited by American Humane, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Zoological Association of American, a clear indication that an institution is committed to the highest standards in animal care, ethics, conservation and education. It also has been named the Best Zoo in New Jersey by NJ Monthly magazine four times and received a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor.com three times.

Revitalizing Essex County Turtle Back Zoo

Since taking office in 2003, DiVincenzo has spearheaded over $75 million in upgrades to Essex County Turtle Back Zoo, which have included updating the Turtle Back Junction Train Station to enhance public access; developing the African Adventure with four Masai giraffes, lions and hyenas, and South African Penguins; the Drill Family Flamingo Exhibit; Leopard Exhibit; a new Educational Building; the Carousel with 33 figures of endangered animals; the Sea Lion Sound Exhibit with sea lions, sharks and sting rays; the Big Cat Country Exhibit with jaguars and cougars; Tam-ring Gibbons Reserve with white cheeked gibbons apes, Reeves muntjac and white naped cranes; Australian Exhibit that features kangaroos, wallabies, emus and over 500 birds in the Aviary; Reptile and Education Center, open air dining pavilion and playground, Penguin Exhibit, Otter Exhibit, Wolf Exhibit, Alligator Exhibit, North American Animal Exhibit, Black Bear Exhibit, Animal Hospital, Essex Farm Petting Zoo and South American Animal Exhibit; renovating the Food Pavilion for year-round use and making upgrades to the entrance as well as fencing and infrastructure to meet AZA requirements. Funding has been provided through Green Acres grants, existing capital improvement bonds, or donations from the Zoological Society, Essex County Parks Foundation, corporations or private foundations. Corporations that have provided support include Investors Bank, Prudential Financial, Inc., Wells Fargo, PNC Bank, PSE&G, Verizon, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, Coca Cola, Capital One Bank, TD Bank, Aramark, Covanta Energy, Matrix Development Group, the family of Ronald Mount and OxyMagic carpet cleaning.

The Essex County Park System was created in 1895 and is the first county park system established in the United States. The Park System consists of more than 6,000 acres and has 23 parks, five reservations, an environmental center, a zoo, Treetop Adventure Course, ice skating rink, roller skating rink, three public golf courses, golf driving range, two miniature golf courses, four off-leash dog facilities, a castle and the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens. Turtle Back Zoo is located in Essex County’s South Mountain Reservation and was opened to the public in 1963.

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