WEST ORANGE, NJ — Residents may donate non-perishable food items, gently used winter coats and unwrapped new toys in exchange for free admission to Essex County Turtle Back Zoo this month. 

The drive to benefit families in need will be held from Dec. 8-31. Because of the pandemic, visitors will still be required to make a reservation to come to the zoo. Wearing masks while on zoo grounds is required for all visitors.

"The pandemic has created hardships for so many people who have lost their jobs and can't make ends meet. The requests for assistance have become so great that food pantries and other charitable organizations can't keep up with the demands. The donations of food, coats and toys that we collect can help provide the basic necessities for those in need and bring a smile to the face of a child during this holiday season," Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. said.

"Donating to the drive at Turtle Back Zoo is a great way to give back to the community. The need is there because of the pandemic," Freeholder Carlos Pomares said.

"This year we have received more requests for toys than ever. This is the season for giving and we thank the County Executive for getting us involved and supporting our toy drive," Sheriff Armando Fontoura said.

"This is an unprecedented year. Because of the pandemic and its effect on the economy, the demand for our services is up and our resources are down. We appreciate the donations we will receive from this drive," said Peter Ruccione from Catholic Charities.

Stephen Dennis from the Community FoodBank of New Jersey agreed that the support from Essex County will help fill the shelves of the FoodBank.

"Children of all ages look forward to receiving toys during the holidays and children whose parents are incarcerated should not be an exception. This drive will help us fulfill children's holiday wishes," said Deidre White, Director of Social Services at the Essex County Correctional Facility.

Non-perishable food items will be collected by the Community FoodBank of New Jersey. Winter coats will be collected by Catholic Charities. Toys will be donated to the Essex County Sheriff's Toy Drive, the Essex County Correctional Facility Toy Drive and local shelters.

While admission is free, visitors will still have to pay $2 to ride the carousel. It is free to ride the miniature train, which is open weekends.

Turtle Back Zoo is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Visitors will be required to purchase tickets in advance at www.turtlebackzoo.com. A maximum of 3,200 will be admitted per day; admission will be at staggered times throughout the day. Visitors must wear face coverings and, before entering, have their temperature screened. If a person has a temperature higher than 100 degrees, they will be asked to wait 15 minutes before their temperature is screened again. While walking along the paths, visitors are asked to practice social distancing.

The annual Holiday Lights Display has been canceled.