At Cape May Zoo, cages aren't the only safety measures

Article from The Atlantic City Press
By M Miller

CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE – The skull and crossbones on the back of the cage say it all: Do not open under penalty of death.

The Cape May County Zoo does not take any chances with its timber rattlesnakes or the other dangerous animals in its collection. Only the snake handlers have keys to the heavy-duty Master locks securing the viper exhibits.

This is one of countless examples of security measures de-signed to keep staff, visitors and animals safe.

Keepers work in teams whenever handling the Reptile House’s venomous or constricting snakes or alligators, including a 400-pound brute named Oliver who can be moved only with the manhandling of eight staff.

The zoo’s no-nonsense security was on display last month when it relocated Rocky, its resident Siberian tiger, for the first time in nine years. A Cape May County Sheriff’s deputy armed with a shotgun supervised the move of the tranquilized cat so its exhibit could undergo renovations.

Keepers have to be adaptable when handling peripatetic prairie dogs, phobic giraffes or 11 feet of angry gator.

Hot zone

Safety protocols are most obvious at the Reptile House, home to several species of vipers, venomous lizards and pythons.

“Hot,” reads the simple hand-lettered sign on the locked door leading to the back of the exhibits whenever keepers feed the animals. Reptile keepers post the sign to warn other employees who might be leading a group on a behind-the-scenes tour.

Reptile House Director Kevin Wilson always has a co-worker nearby at feeding time. Even the non-venomous but powerful Burmese python can be lethal. At 10 feet long, the snake can strike well beyond its narrow cage.

If bitten, Wilson said a keeper would have to act fast to spray the enormous constrictor with a hot-water hose, a trick known to repel the snakes. Keepers bitten by smaller constrictors can use a credit card to disgorge the sharp rows of teeth one at a time so as not to harm the animal or further injure the victim, Wilson said. But so far, this scenario has been hypothetical.

But Wilson remembers once mistakenly picking up the mildly venomous 6-foot mangrove snake with his 4-foot reptile hook.

“He nearly bit me on the nose,” he said.

One busy morning, a crowd of parents and children gathered around the timber rattlers’ – safely ensconced behind glass – as Wilson prepared to feed the two slithery serpents.

He used long hooks to pick each up gingerly and lower them into a garbage can where they would eat frozen mice warmed to body temperature in a bowl of hot water. The state donated the snakes to the zoo after they wandered too near residential homes, Wilson said.

“People are afraid of snakes in general. But rattlesnakes? Forget it. People get really freaked out,” Wilson said.

Since rattlesnakes give birth to live young – and since baby rattlesnakes are just as deadly as adults – the keepers have a running joke about making sure both of the exhibit’s vipers indeed are girls. (They are.)

Precautionary measures

In a refrigerator where keepers pin pizza menus, Wilson has a pouch with index cards identifying each employee’s allergies and medical history. Beneath the cards are vials of antivenin.

All of the zoo’s venomous snakes boast the same type of venom, treated by a hemotoxic serum made especially for pit vipers.

The vials are expensive at $900 each and expire after a few years. A single bite requires an initial dose of 10 vials, an expense that explains why the zoo does not have cobras or other species of snake that require a different kind of serum.

Area hospitals keep additional doses on hand because rattlesnakes are native to southern New Jersey. They all share serum when necessary.

AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City sent an ambulance to retrieve the zoo’s stockpile of antivenin after a guest of a private snake collector in Egg Harbor Township was bitten by a pygmy rattlesnake, Wilson said.

The zoo kept its snake cages locked down for a few days until it could restock the fridge with serum.

The zoo also has a Mexican beaded lizard capable of inflicting a nasty and mildly venomous bite, treated with antibiotics, Wilson said.

Wilson said the less keepers have to handle another dangerous reptile, the eyelash viper, the better. To that end, they use a simple clear-plastic shield to keep the snake cornered when cleaning its exhibit.

Modern zoos allow far less keeper interaction with the animals than once was common, Wilson said. The big cats are strictly hands-off. The zoo uses food rewards to move the hoofed animals.

Wilson said the zoo considered getting rid of its alligators when he took over as director five years ago because of the risk. Back then, zookeepers would wrangle thrashing gators by jumping right on their backs, much like the late Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin.

“Does it work? Yes. Is it dangerous? Absolutely,” Wilson said. “It’s cowboy stuff.”

But Wilson took an intensive course to learn new ways to work with alligators in confined spaces. Now the zoo uses noose poles like those favored by animal-control officers.

“It’s all about technique – finding a safer way to do the same thing,” he said.

Breaking out

Keepers also have to learn how safely to move animals 10 times their size. For years, Wilson worked with the giraffes, animals known to inflict punishing kicks that can kill a lion.

The world’s tallest animal might also be the most neurotic, Wilson said.

“They’re the ‘Monks’ of the animal kingdom,” he said. “They won’t step in rain puddles. One time, I tried to get them out of the barn, but they wouldn’t budge because there was a piece of paper on the ground. They won’t come back in the barn unless the lights are on.”

The zoo has not had any major animal escapes since 1996, when vandals cut locks and released four bison and two elk that were found grazing on front lawns in suburban Cape May Court House one morning.

The animals were herded back to the zoo without incident. The Press of Atlantic City captured the escapade this way: “The elk stayed fairly close to home. Not surprisingly, the buffalo roamed.”

Jackson Township police know what can happen when security measures fail. In 1999, they shot and killed a 431-pound tiger on the prowl.

Efforts to tranquilize the big cat failed when the thick scrub deflected the darts, said Capt. David Newman, who served as deputy incident commander.

With the surveillance aircraft running low on fuel, police decided to take no chances and shoot the tiger, which was believed to have escaped from a private reserve.

“We had no other choice. The tiger was encroaching on residential properties,” Newman said.

The closest Cape May County has come to an animal escape in recent years was when some ingenious prairie dogs made a jailbreak like the penguins in the movie “Madagascar.”

The tunneling rodents had no hope of digging out since the dirt-covered exhibit was encased in poured concrete. Instead, the persistent animals built a dirt ramp to scale the low wall, Wilson said.

The prairie dogs did not go far. An electric fence around the exhibit confounded subsequent escape attempts.

The Middle Township Police Department has a Dangerous Animal Escape Plan with emphasis on the “Code Red” animals: the lion, tiger, black bears, cheetahs, bison, elk, alligators and leopards.

“We don’t use lights and sirens to respond,” police Lt. Christopher Leusner said. “We don’t want to startle the animals.”

The plan calls for establishing a perimeter around the escaped animal and taking direction from zookeepers about the best course of action.

This level of preparedness no doubt comes as a relief to neighbors such as Carole Donohue in suburban Cape May Court House. Donohue, who lives across the street from the zoo, said she has faith in its security measures.

She is reminded daily how close her family lives to deadly predators. She hears Brutu the African lion’s thunderous roar from her backyard swimming pool. It is one of the neighborhood’s simple charms, she said.

“It’s awesome. He does a big roar followed by four bursts,” she said. “I can always tell when it’s feeding time.”


If you need accommodations on you next trip to the Cape May Zoo then try the Bacchus Inn at 609.884.2129.

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