Paige works at a highly respected city zoo, an institution dedicated to care and enrichment of its animals. So, you can probably imagine her expression when we arrived at the ticketing office for Space Farms Zoo and discovered it was in a grand hall plastered with wall-to-wall taxidermy. Sort of a bizarre introduction to an animal sanctuary: a trophied showcase of what all the exhibits would look like dead. We stood there aghast for a moment, taking in the glum display of beheaded elk that seemed to be looking wistfully at us and muttering “your ticket money put us here”. We were in for a troubling ride.
Space Farms began as you would expect from a menagerie. In 1927, Ralph and Elizabeth Space secured the plot of land that now encapsulates the zoo and several small museum exhibits. Originally, the Space family used the land to open a small gas station and convenience store, until Ralph was hired by the New Jersey State Game Department to trap predatory animals threatening local farms. Instead of killing the animals in the spring, he kept them with the intention of selling their furs in the fall. This plan was allegedly halted when his children begged him to keep the animals instead.
The collection has grown startlingly since then and become host to a wide range of impressive animals. At one point, Space Farms was host to the largest captive bear in the world. This 2,000 pound Kodiak Bear (named Goliath) now stands as the dismal centerpiece to the taxidermy wall. Stories like these are interesting footnotes in Space Farms history, but almost certainly not what you know it for, if you know it at all. Both Paige and her brother Tyler, who was traveling with us, recalled stories of visiting with school groups as young kids. They shared hazy anecdotes of a prison-yard-like environment of bare cages and cells. These memories weren’t unfounded: appalled reviewers run rampant online and Parade Magazine ranked it on its list of 10 Worst Zoos, referring to it as an “animal slum”. This review was from the mid-80’s however and neither Paige nor Tyler had visited in 20 years. The impression given from the site is a zoo that has been thoroughly cleaned up to meet standards. So with that, we bought our tickets.
At the check-in window, the kind lady behind the desk asked if we wanted to purchase any feed for the animals. Expecting pellets of some type to give to the goats, we enthusiastically agreed. “Great!” she chirped. “Would you like the corn or the crackers?” Paige and I stared in bewilderment at the bin she was pointing to. It was half stacked with bagged corn kernels and half piled high with individual packets of animal crackers, like you might buy at a 7-Eleven if they were out of good cookies. Paige, confused as to which wildlife would possibly have animal crackers as a part of their natural diet, asked politely for the corn. “Great!” the lady repeated, handing over the animal crackers. “These are great for the bears!” Too confused to argue, we took the animal crackers and moved on. “Did she mean they’re great for the bear or they’re great because they look like the bear?” I asked Paige. She shrugged slightly and we pushed through the door, out into the zoo.
“Is this…it? Are we…here?” I asked. “Uh oh…” Paige said, echoing my concern. We stood on an open field, dotted with cages and chain-link fences as far as the eye could see. Randomly interspersed were lumps of playground equipment - a slide here and then a cage, the stripped frame of a swing set (swings long gone) followed by an enclosure. It was like an old playground actively being rezoned as a prison complex. Immediately to our right was a small fenced yard where a few goats ambled around. We went over closer and spied a travel-sized crate sitting among the goats. Inside there was a motionless blob of fur that Paige identified, with some horror, as a chinchilla. These large rodents hail from the chilly Andes mountains and are apparently quite sensitive to temperatures. They are only comfortable in temperatures between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit - Paige told me at her zoo they won’t even take the chinchilla outside unless it’s very mild. But here it was, baking openly in the mid 90’s swelter. “Is it…dead?” I asked. Paige shrugged hopelessly.
This was largely the story as we walked around the property. Each animal was stored in a squat, barren cage - most appearing disproportionately small and bare. A jaguar was packed sadly into a crate about the size of an average living room and lay slumped across a solitary tree branch. A raccoon desperately pawed through his fence, picking up handfuls of dirt and trying to eat them. A tiger lay in a barebones concrete cell, looking like he was preparing for his parole hearing. As we wandered between each dismal display, we were followed by a dense and omnipresent smell of feces. It was rough. This isn’t to say it wasn’t impressive being so close to some truly majestic animals - it was. At the Kodiak Bear cage, the bear walked the perimeter of its enclosure, so close that I could have stuck out my arm and fed it my fingers. The unfortunate part was that it looked like it could use the snack.
To escape the mournful gaze of the animals, we ducked into the museum at the back. We weren’t sure what to expect of the collection, but I think Paige captured it best when she summarized it as “a collection of things they had”. That really captures the energy of the miscellaneous haul, which was quite impressively packed into a squat circle of buildings. By this point, we were running low on time and were booking it, so we missed much of the nuance to the collection. This didn’t stop our drive-by enjoyment of the multitude of artifacts, ranging from glow-in-the-dark minerals to a display case of otter trophies. Drive-by is an appropriate descriptor however, because the bulk of the museum sheds were filled with row after row of classic cars.
After dipping through multiple halls lined with Model T displays, we exited back out into the scorching sun. In front of the museum buildings was an original jail cell from the town. About six foot tall and eight foot wide, we half expected a giraffe to be stuffed inside. Such is the character of this charmless zoo, complete with all the comforts of a slaughterhouse backroom. We can only hope the conditions continue to improve, because it is home to some exceptional animals. If you’re looking for cheap animal crackers however, it’s a must.
If after all this you're still interested in visiting, Space Farms is open 10AM-5PM daily. Adult tickets are $16, teen tickets are $13 and children are $12.