PISCATAWAY – The Johnson Park Animal Haven will close, with some animals relocated to other zoos or sanctuaries, while some may find a new home nearby.
Middlesex County unveiled a three-pronged plan last week for the future of the zoo in Johnson Park on River Road which was flooded during Hurricane Ida last September. The plan comes following a report done by French and Parrello Associates and Zoo Advisors who were hired in December to study the entire Middlesex County park system with a focus on its three animal havens.
Though most of the animals will be moved to sanctuaries or taken to zoos in other county parks, County Administrator John Pulomena said about a dozen animals will be moved to a new facility to be built next to East Jersey Olde Town Village as part of “a new and historic animal husbandry program.”
East Jersey Olde Town Village, also on River Road in Piscataway, is the county’s collection of historic structures from the 1700s and 1800s that offers exhibits, programs and living history.
These animals include Maggie the cow, who was recently moved to Merrill Park in Colonia, two thoroughbred horses, three goats and six chickens.
“The select group of animals will provide a platform for this historic animal husbandry program that dovetails into our Destination 2040 goals and professional planning recommendations and comprehensive assessments of the site,” Pulomena said. “We are already in the process of building out the necessary needs for that and more information will follow as it becomes available.”
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Olde Town is not considered to be in the flood plain that encompasses Johnson Park where the Animal Haven is, Pulomena added.
Ashley Hartwik, founder of the Friends of Johnson Park Animals (FJPA), said the county’s plan is more positive than negative.
“The current zoo area will be dismantled,” Hartwik said. “I was overjoyed that they did the right thing. You know, I think everyone knew that it was the right thing, but they wanted to make sure that they were following a process and a fact-finding report, so they got that. They tried to come up with a plan where they could still have animals at Johnson Park for the people that wanted animals there.”
While advocates are concerned about housing animals in a husbandry program or at other county parks, the fact that several animals are slated to go to sanctuaries is “wonderful,” Hartwik said, adding she hopes the county will quickly release animals to sanctuaries.
Several “vulnerable” Johnson Park animals have already been relocated to the zoos at Merrill Park and Thompson Park in Monroe, Pulomena said.
Animals headed to sanctuaries include Nippy the miniature horse, the red fox, raccoon and others including birds, white-tailed and fallow deer, pythons, iguana, rabbits, roosters and goats. On April 2, the county released four alpacas to Live Free Farm, an animal sanctuary in Montgomery. That brings the current total of animals already at sanctuaries to 11, Hartwik said.
Previously, the county released Milton the goat to Goats of Anarchy, Mamacita the goat and her two babies to RJ Stokely, and two pigs and one ram to Uncle Neil’s Home.
But FJPA members believe there are potential problems with the Olde Town plan.
“It will still be run by the same people who were responsible for the nightmare to the animals in Johnson Park,” Hartwik said. “The area they want to put it in still floods, despite claims to the contrary. It will be extremely expensive for taxpayers. And after those specific animals pass, they plan to source more ‘heritage’ animals from a breeding farm to be put there . This husbandry program is not what the park needs. We will oppose the husbandry program too and try to get the rest of those animals released to sanctuaries.”
The county said staffers will be sent to classes on how to properly take care of animals. That news was welcomed by the FJPA.
“One thing that’s really important is that they clearly did make a genuine effort to accommodate all the sides of the issue,” Hartwik said. “They really did try to accommodate the fact that some of the animals clearly do not belong there, like the wildlife. They accommodated the fact that the area the animals were in is a flood plain. They accommodated the fact that there are some individuals that wanted to still have animals in Johnson Park, so they they’re now doing this historic husbandry program. They really did make an effort to accommodate as many different things as they could. And we still have concerns over some of it — I think the fine details have to be ironed out. But I appreciate that they’ve made that effort.”
Cheryl Makin is an award-winning features and education reporter for MyCentralJersey.com, part of the USA Today Network. Contact: Cmakin@gannettnj.com or @CherylMakin.