The Society was started in 1973, ten years after the zoo opened, but was not incorporated until April 15, 1975. It acts as an advisory body for development, as well as educational and fundraising purposes. Monies raised through memberships, gifts, and grants are used to expand the zoo’s animal collection and existing exhibits.
In 1979 The Society began its “Adopt-An-Animal” program, in which zoo animals are “adopted” for a year for a listed fee. In 1983 it launched its “Animal Outreach” program, making it possible to take zoo animals to schools and offsite exhibits; this program continues to be run by zoo personnel today.
By the mid-nineties, however, the zoo was in a state of disrepair, and the county was thinking of closing it. The Society spearheaded a campaign to save the zoo, and sent letters to schools throughout Essex County, urging school children to write to county officials, pleading for the repair of the zoo. The county responded to these pleas by making a commitment to keep the zoo open. It repaired fences, planted shrubbery, built walls and paths, and installed a petting zoo. Soon after, the Great Plains and Scottish Highland cattle exhibits were built, and the Society purchased a pair of bison, elk and Scottish Highland cattle for these new exhibits.
In 2000 the County and the Society hired an engineering firm to design the zoo’s cat and otter exhibits. Once the exhibits were constructed, using $3.3 million of County money, as well as $60,000 of Society funds, the Society purchased two bobcats, two cougars and two river otters.
The Society also realized it would be an important step for Turtle Back Zoo to link up with other zoos, and so paid for the zoo to become part of ISIS (the International Species Information System), a computerized inventory of more than 60,000 living animals.
Over the years, the Zoological Society has initiated a number of successful fundraising activities. During its Paver program, it sold more than 350 engraved paver stones, which are installed in the zoo’s entrance pavilion. Its Adopt-An-Animal program is still going strong, as are its popular Loving Memory and Celebration Critter cards.
The Wall of Tiles fund raiser program was launched in 2002 — for this program, terracotta tiles were sold in different sizes for $150, $250, and $500. Phase I and Phase II were completely sold out and installed on the side of the Otter Exhibit. In 2005 Phase III was completed.
The Society’s biggest fundraiser, though, is selling memberships. Among its many benefits, a membership allows unlimited free admittance to Turtle Back Zoo for an entire year.
The Board of Chosen Freeholders voted to spend $2.2 million for zoo improvements and the construction of a veterinary hospital on zoo grounds. The state-of-the-art hospital is now finished.
The Zoological Society of New Jersey has always dedicated all of its efforts to the support and betterment of Turtle Back Zoo. Every penny, and every hour of the thousands of hours volunteered yearly by the unpaid Society members, goes to the support of TBZ. These figures are even more impressive when considering the level and scope of professional services provided to the Zoo on behalf of the Society. More than simply a source of funds, the Society and its unpaid Board of Trustees is comprised of individuals who lend their personal expertise and resources, and that of their companies, to deal with the long term and short term needs of the Zoo. All of the professional disciplines are represented – finance, accounting, investing, legal, marketing, administration, animal sciences, fundraising, engineering and construction, and more.
As the Zoo and the Society grow hand in hand, it is clear that these kinds of services are essential to the proper management and stewardship of the funding and execution of an entire range of impressive projects and enhancements to the visitors experience. What’s also clear is that the provision of the time and services to the Zoo on a paid, commercial basis on the current scale would be virtually unaffordable, particularly in the current downsized economy.
Recent accomplishments are impressive. In 2004 the Society applied for and was given a $500,000 Green Acres grant to go towards the construction of a new Black Bear exhibit. Additionally, two Society board members, Ronald Mount and the late Jim Garahan, provided substantial additional funds for the bear exhibit through their individual efforts and donations. A second Green Acres grant of $400,000 went to the construction of a new playground and outdoor pavilion.
Further, Society financial support either contributed to or totally funded the completion of an entire range of exciting projects – the new Penguin Exhibit, New Pony Track, Gazebo, and Monkey House; design work on the Carousel, Reptile House, Aviary, Panda Exhibit and others. As part of the observance of the Society’s 35th coral anniversary, $250,000 was put towards the brand new Aquarium. What’s more, the Society outright funds a range of smaller day-to-day requirements put forth by the zoo managers — banners, flags, topiaries, benches, animal foods, animal enrichment items, construction, repairs, supplies, and tuition, travel, and expenses for zoo personnel attending schools, seminars, and conferences.
A new project begun by the Society in 2010 is the development and awarding of a series of grants for researchers engaged in the advancement of the zoological sciences. All told, in the past five years alone the Zoological Society of New Jersey has provided more than $1.2 million in funding to the improvement and operation of the Turtle Back Zoo.