About The Zoo

Turtle Back Zoo is a facility of the Essex County Parks Department. The zoo is funded by the County of Essex as a service to the residents of the County and the surrounding areas. The Zoological Society of NJ, Inc. is the fundraising branch of Turtle Back Zoo. The Society is a not for profit organization that helps to raise funds for improvements to Turtle Back Zoo.

Message From County Executive



From our smallest spider to the half-ton North American Bison in our Great Plains Exhibit, Essex County’s Turtle Back Zoo offers a look at more than 100 different species of native and exotic animals from five continents. Get up close and personal with our animals at our Essex Farm Petting Zoo, and don’t forget to take a tranquil ride through South Mountain Reservation on our miniature train. Come back often as we constantly are adding new and exciting natural habitat exhibits for our animals. Whether you spend a day or an afternoon, Turtle Back Zoo is a special place where children and their families can learn about animals and gain appreciation for nature. I invite you to Experience Essex and Turtle Back Zoo.


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Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr.
Essex County Executive


Facility Rental

In addition to kids parties, Turtle Back Zoo offers a number of unique rental locations for your affairs, corporate events and parties. Our event planner will work with you from beginning to end to ensure a once in a lifetime event. Catering options are available using the zoo’s catering services or outside catering services. For more information or to book your event, please call the zoo’s guest relations office at 973-731-5800, x101.

Reptile House

Our state of the art Reptile House/Education Center can offer a one of a kind experience to you and your guests. Have a corporate meeting while being surrounded by our Black Dragons and Reticulated Pythons! Alternatively, you can have a buffet set-up within our Education Center. Work with the Zoo Events Coordinator to make your affair an unforgettable one.

Limited to 100 individuals.

Cost: $1000

Class Room Party

Class Room Party

Reptile House Party

Reptile House Party

Carousel Plaza

Come and experience our Endangered Species Carousel at night! Stained glass windows, mosaic floors and unique outdoor and indoor lighting make this one of the most elegant locations within the zoo grounds. Have your guests enjoy our scenic boardwalk, or sit and have dinner in our Wooden Gazebo. Perfect for any occasion. This rental is completely private to you and your guests alone. Work with the Zoo Events Coordinator to make your event an unforgettable one. Package includes unlimited carousel rides.

Limited to 350 people.

Cost: $1,200

Carousel Party

Carousel Party

Birthday Parties

Turtle Back Zoo now has a number of indoor and outdoor facilities available to rent for parties. Whether it’s a birthday party, corporate event or anything in between, we can accommodate most any function. We can also cater your event, and have several menus from which you can choose. Make sure to ask us about face painting at your next party!

Click here to download party menu options

Cafe Party Room:  Room Rental is available for exclusive use on Mondays through Saturdays (your party will have exclusive use of the room for the 2 hour time period of 10am to 12pm), plus the cost of food and the price of group admission.*

Carousel:  Our Endangered Species Carousel is a new and exciting area to hold your party. This beautiful plaza area includes an outdoor area as well as a covered one.  This area is available for daytime parties, and makes an unique setting for an evening affair.*

Classrooms:  The use of the classroom(s) is available for rental in time periods of two hours with exclusive use of the room.  Each room holds approximately 30 people.  Catering is available through the Cafeteria, or you maybring your own food.

Gazebo: The outdoor upper gazebo hold up to 140 guests. Two hour exclusive rentals are available. Catering is available through the Cafeteria, or you may bring your own food.*

Picnic Area:  The Picnic Area tables hold approximately 200 people.  This area is available to parties as well as to other Zoo guests.

Group Rates are for groups of 15 or more.
* denotes a minimum group of 35 guests
In season group admission (April 1 – November 30) $9.00 per person
Off season group admission (December 1 – March 31)   $8.00 per person

For more information, please contact Turtle Back Zoo Customer Relations at 973 731-5800, ext 221 or 223

Our Sponsors

Turtle Back Zoo would like to thank its many sponsors for their support.

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Zoological Society


The Zoological Society of New Jersey, Inc. is a nonprofit 501 (c)(3) corporation, organized under the laws of the State of New Jersey. Its purpose is to promote the general welfare of Essex County Turtle Back Zoo, a facility of the Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs; to stimulate the public’s interest in the growth, improvement, and development of Essex County Turtle Back Zoo through education and research with an emphasis on natural conservation of all species of animals; to support and sponsor fund-raising events to help in the financing of new facilities, purchase of equipment, and acquisition of animals; to encourage membership in the Society by persons interested in the promotion of the physical and aesthetic qualities of Essex County Turtle Back Zoo; and to stimulate the public interest in the development and enjoyment of Essex County Turtle Back Zoo and of animals everywhere.

Society History

The Zoological Society of New Jersey, Inc. is a nonprofit 501 (c)(3) corporation of the State of New Jersey and the fundraising arm of Turtle Back Zoo. 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.

Board of Trustees

  • President: John Doeffinger
  • Vice President: Eric Rothman
  • Treasurer: Adam Olszowy
  • Recording Secretary: Rhonda DeStefano, Esq.


  • Denise Blasevick
  • Laura Auer
  • Len Savino
  • Marion O’Neill
  • Kevin Coyne
  • Kerri Berson Levine
  • Craig Ploetner
  • Elizabeth J. Sobel, Esq.
  • Darlene Panzitta
  • K. Anthony Thomas, Esq., Attorney Pro Bono

Financial information

Please click here to view the Society’s annual report


Master Plan

Master Build Plan

Master Build Plan


In 1962 the Essex County Park Commission, headed by President William  Wachenfeld,  awarded a $400,000 contract to Max Drill, Inc. to build a zoo on a 15.5 acre section of  the county’s South Mountain Reservation.  It was to be a seasonal zoo designed for children.  Tjark Reiss was hired to design the zoo and he created exhibits based on Hans Christian Anderson’s nursery rhyme themes and other children’s stories.  There were also farm animals and a miniature antique train ride that took visitors on a mile round trip ride through the zoo’s surrounding woodlands.

Turtle Back Zoo opened June 3, 1963 with a collection of 140 animals of 40 species.  The zoo took its name from a rock formation located on the mountainside just east of the zoo. The Lanape Indians called this formation Turtle Back Rock.  The pattern on the rocks created by large balsatic crystals makes it appear that you are standing on the back of an enormous tortoise.

By 1973 the zoo’s animal collection had grown to 850 animals of 275 species.In 1975 a Zoological Society was established that could promote the zoo and provide funding support through memberships and other fund raising efforts. The first board meeting took place September 1975. In 1978 the autonomous Board of Park Commissioners that directly administered the zoo was replaced with the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs under the direction of the County Executive.

In 2000 the zoo completed a new master plan with accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association as its major focus. The zoo began to replace the antiquated 1960’s style cages with larger naturalistic habitats for its animals. In 2005 the zoo completed the new 1.8 million dollar Essex County Animal Hospital at Turtle Back Zoo to serve the zoo’s animal residents and serve as a quarantine facility for a growing animal collection. That year the zoo demolished the original administration building and education center and replaced them with a new 11,000 square foot complex that included a walk through gift shop, new visitor friendly entrance and exit, a 4,000 square foot reptile center, administrative offices, a new group entrance and two classrooms that open up into a large auditorium. A new picnic pavilion and animal themed playground were also added in 2006.

In September 2006 Turtle Back Zoo was granted accreditation by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. This distinct honor places Turtle Back Zoo amongst the elite zoos and aquaria of the United States and means that the zoo adheres to the highest standards for zoos in the country.

Mission & History

TURTLE BACK ZOO is committed to providing an enriching recreational experience that fosters excellence in wildlife education and wildlife conservation, so that present and future generations are inspired to understand, appreciate and protect the fragile interdependence of all living things.

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Upcoming Events

  • February 20, 2017See the Seas Mini-Camp, Parts I and II
  • February 25, 2017 11:00 amSeasonal Job Fair
  • February 25, 2017 2:00 pmSOLD OUT - Zoo Behind the Scenes: Giraffe House
  • February 26, 2017 2:00 pmMembers Only- Zoo Behind the Scenes: Giraffe House
  • March 4, 2017 12:00 pmSummer Camp Open House
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