WEST ORANGE, NJ – As part of the expansion of the African Adventure-themed area of the Essex County Turtle Back Zoo, which already includes Masai giraffes, the new Ronald J. Mount Lion and Hyena Exhibit was officially opened on June 12 with a celebratory ribbon cutting hosted by Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Jr.
According to DiVincenzo, the exhibit is named after the late Ronald Mount, who was a major supporter of the zoo and a member of the Zoological Society of New Jersey and the Volunteer Docents. He said Mount was a great advocate for the zoo and the he always wanted to bring in lions, the central figure on the Essex County Seal.
“Known as the King of the Jungle, the lions are one of the most recognizable and popular animals,” said DiVincenzo, adding that the lions will complement the giraffes and make the African Adventure exhibit more dynamic. “We are pleased to have partnered with [Ronald Mount’s] family to make his dream come true and create a first-class exhibit for the public to enjoy.”
The new half-acre exhibit is heavily landscaped and has a two-foot pool and exposed rock formation.
There are three stations for the public to view the animals—one of which is a heated stone patio to attract the lions so they can be easily seen and another is a heated one-story building at the rear of the exhibit designed to resemble an old North African fortress that has been returned to the wild.
"Lions and Hyenas interact in the wild and that is what we have tried to re-create here," said Turtle Back Zoo Director Michael Kerr. "What is also important is that both of these species are part of the AZA'S species survival plan so we can provide a genetically stable population for years to come.”
Mount became involved in Essex County Turtle Back Zoo in 2005 when he contributed to the development of the “Bears in Your Backyard” exhibit. The bear exhibit was the first major addition to the zoo during the DiVincenzo administration and marked the beginning of a number of exhibits designed to replicate the animals’ natural habitats. The 18,000-square-foot bear exhibit features two bears, named Jelly and Jam, and provides visitors with the experience that they are watching the bears from their own home.
Mount later joined the volunteer Docent Organization, which assists Turtle Back Zoo staff with educational and outreach programs and became a board member of the Zoological Society of New Jersey, the fundraising arm of the zoo. For his contributions, Mount was one of the honorees at the Turtle Back Zoo 50th Anniversary Gala in 2013. During the event, he and his grandson, Jasper, gave a speech to the more than 600 people in attendance.
"Turtle Back Zoo meant a great deal to my father and having lions here was always his dream,” said Ian Mount, Ronald Mount’s son. “It's a special day when I can show my children that there grandfather had such a meaningful role at the zoo. It's great that we can all enjoy this without going too far from home. I hope this exhibit opens with a roar.”
Mount was also involved in other philanthropic and civic activities, including founding the Ronald J. Mount Educational Foundation, which was his own personal legacy of supporting educational opportunities for deserving individuals; and serving as president of the American Cancer Association, president of the Inner-City Scholarship Fund in New Jersey and president of the Millburn Board of Education.
Professionally, Mount was a successful real estate investor and was involved in the commercial and residential real estate market in Naples, FL. Mount died on April 23, 2015.
French and Parrello from Wall, NJ, received a $350,000 contract to design the exhibit. Shauger Property Services from East Orange was awarded a publicly bid contract for $3,660,214 to perform the construction work.
The Essex County Public Works Department monitored the project so that delays were avoided. The exhibit was funded with a donation from Ian Mount as well as support from the Pooled Government Loan Program from the Essex County Improvement Authority. Construction began in October 2016 and was finished in seven months.
Essex County Turtle Back Zoo has roared back to life from the verge of closure by a previous administration. Attendance reached an all-time high of 795,558 in 2016 and the zoo has operated as a self-sustaining facility with revenue collected exceeding operating expenses for the last nine years.
In addition, Turtle Back earned its third five-year accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 2016 and its first five-year accreditation from the Zoological Association of American in 2017, a clear indication that an institution is committed to the highest standards in animal care, ethics, conservation and education. It also has been named the “Best Zoo in New Jersey” by NJ Monthly magazine four times and received a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor.com three times.
The zoo is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $14 for adults, $11 for children and senior citizens, and free for children younger than 2 years. For more information, call 973-731-5800 or visit www.essexcountynj.org/turtlebackzoo.