CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Thinking of a newborn that stands 6 feet tall and weighs 160 pounds as cute may be difficult, but the crowd reaction Wednesday morning didn’t lie as the Cape May County Park & Zoo introduced one of its newest arrivals.
“How cute. She looks like a statue,” said one woman as the baby giraffe stood under her mother, Joanie.
“Oh my God, how beautiful, so precious,” said another.
“There she is, Miss America,” proclaimed another.
More than 100 people crowded around the wooden walkway overlooking the African savannah exhibit as the baby giraffe born Sept. 2 made its first public appearance. The crowd reacted every time the giraffe took a clumsy step or tried to copy her mother by nibbling on a cedar branch. She is still drinking her mother’s milk, so it was more learning than sustenance.
Unlike humans, this baby won’t spend much time in the cute phase. The only times giraffes are susceptible to predators is when they are young, so they grow fast, said zoo veterinarian Alex Ernst. His advice to the public is to come see her very soon.
“She’s already had six inches of growth since Labor Day. Next spring she’ll be half the size of her mom,” Ernst said.
Her first public appearance drew a pretty good crowd for a weekday in September. County Freeholder Marie Hayes, who oversees the zoo operation, brought six of her grandchildren.
“I have a great job,” Hayes said.
The giraffe was the first born at the zoo in 12 years, and part of the success was attributed to the father, Sterling, a 17-year-old bull brought to Cape May Court House in 2011 from Busch Gardens in Florida. The birth followed a 15-month gestation period, so Sterling likely worked quickly.
“He sired 15 calves at Busch Gardens in Tampa, so we knew he could get the job done,” Ernst said.
Wednesday also included the unveiling of the zoo’s first baby American bison. The zoo has had bison for 29 years but never had a birth until Aug. 29. The mother, Henrietta, and father, Hank, both came from Six Flags Great Adventure in 2010.
Ernst said zoos were instrumental in saving the bison from extinction under a program started in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt with help from what today is known as the Bronx Zoo. Ernst said the original population of 30 million to 60 million bison was down to just 541 in the wild before a zoo breeding program kept them in existence and led to them being released back into the wild. Today about 20,000 bison roam the prairies.
“The American bison population now is stable. They do exist today because of work zoos did back then,” Ernst said.
The Cape May County Zoo is part of the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Species Survival Plan. The plan is what, for example, produced the zoo’s extremely rare snow leopard cubs earlier this year. Only 13 are born in captivity per year, and the zoo has produced seven cubs since 2010. Most have gone out to other zoos in the U.S.
“If you’re looking to have a baby, make sure you come to the zoo and drink the water. It obviously works,” Hayes joked.
Ernst said this year has been one of the best for the breeding program in the 35 years the zoo has existed.
William MacQueen, executive director of the Cape May County Zoo Society, said they are about to go out to bid for a new snow leopard exhibit and hope to break ground in October.
A Vineland firm will make the outside enclosure of pre-cast concrete, covering about 2,500 square feet. There will also be a maternity den and viewing area with fencing made of expensive stainless steel mesh. The $350,000 project will be funded by private donations, including one of $1 million from the late Walter Trettin, of West Wildwood. MacQueen said a new exhibit is also being planned for howler monkeys.
The zoo plans to keep expanding exhibit space and its animal population. Babies, after all, are a big draw.
“With the Species Survival Program, no animals come out of the wild anymore. Our snow leopards are all over the place now. The breeding program is what makes the zoo exciting,” MacQueen said.
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