MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — The Cape May County Zoo is making major changes for its most popular animals, its big cats.
The zoo is creating a “big-cat walk” featuring a cluster of new and renovated exhibits showcasing its Amur tiger, cheetahs, snow leopards and African lions, said Bill MacQueen, director of the zoo’s nonprofit fundraising society.
“Our focus is on big cats because they’re the biggest draw. But they’re hard to take care of and take a lot of effort,” he said. “We’ve been able through private donations to do all the work on their enclosures.”
The county-owned zoo is in the midst of a $600,000 construction project to build a new exhibit for its hugely popular snow leopards, which have produced cubs in four of the past five years.
“We started refurbishing the lion exhibit at the end of the summer,” MacQueen said.
That work began after the zoo’s lion, 16-year-old Brutu, was euthanized in May. Two juvenile male lions soon will move here from Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson Township. The zoo extended the fence to nearly 18 feet high and added some reinforcing posts, he said.
MacQueen said these changes comply with standards set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits the county zoo. The zoo’s accreditation is up for renewal every five years. This designation allows the zoo to share animals with others across the country.
“We have a big fundraising push to have everything done before the AZA accredits the zoo in 2017,” he said.
And the pond where Brutu once hunted wild ducks has been replaced with the enclosure’s own pride rock — a summit that will give the new occupants a proper sense of majesty over their South Jersey kingdom.
“Just like house cats, lions like to get up high. Giving them elevation is important,” MacQueen said.
Meanwhile, Northeast Precast, based in Millville, installed the prefabricated concrete den last week for the snow leopards.
The company normally makes structures for commercial businesses, not Himalayan mountain cats.
“It was definitely unusual for us — at least the end use,” co-owner John Ruga said.
“It’s lower maintenance. They can go in and pressure-wash it for its lifetime and it won’t damage the precast,” he said. “It’s a custom product that can be adapted to any animal they want to put in a shelter. We can make it taller, shorter, wider.”
MacQueen said he would like to build a new tiger den using precast when the zoo renovates Rocky the tiger’s exhibit.
And the zoo is building a new heavy-duty exhibit next to the old snow-leopard enclosures. That display, which already has its new Boardwalk in place, has an African leopard label now, but its exact occupant has not been determined, MacQueen said.
The exhibits will feature stainless-steel mesh instead of traditional chain link. The mesh is both stronger and less visible to the viewing public, allowing people to take better pictures of the animals with less visual interference, he said.
The Zoological Society is raising money for these capital projects through $250 engraved pavers that will be lining the new walkways. After the big cats are content, the society will turn its attention to the little primates, including a new lemur exhibit.
MacQueen said the priority has been the zoo’s big carnivores, which have lots of fans, including Annette Fusco, of Little Egg Harbor Township.
Fusco and Colleen and Derek Coppinger, also of Little Egg, visited the zoo on a rainy Monday and were disappointed that the tiger and snow leopards stayed tucked out of view in their dry dens.
“We always look forward to seeing them,” Fusco said. “Seeing them in person is so much different than seeing them on TV. They’re so beautiful.”
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