"If you were to ask me when I was 10 years old, what I would have wanted to do, this is what I would have said I wanted to do," Dr. Ernst said.
Working with roughly 500 animals spanning 200 different species never ceases to be an intimate experience. However, at this time last year, the veterinarian found himself alone with these critters in an empty zoo.
When we close down around this time last year we weren't really sure what that meant," Ernst said in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic that took root in March of 2020. "There was nobody here. The field trips and the school trips was all gone."
It was a saddening experience for the greater zoo community, given how critical in-person experiences are for a child's education.
"And not only did we miss it, but the animals did, too," Ernst said. "We definitely saw some behavioral changes that indicated they didn't really know what was happening here."
Nevertheless, the Cape May County Park & Zoo picked up digital content creation as an avenue to reach guests. Even one year into the pandemic, the team still produces videos for Tik Tok, YouTube, and Facebook to continue entertaining and educating folks near and far.
But as winter turns to spring, zoo staff is focused on creating a safe and immersive in-person experience for guests coming out of their figurative hibernations.
"We are full steam ahead," said Ernst. "We are open, we are continuing with our projects, continuing to expand and improve as we always have."
Adults and children alike seem to be enjoying a scenery that differs from the four walls of their homes.
"I'm like a child at heart," said Tina Dippolito from Egg Harbor Township while leading a party of small children through the lush landscapes. "I love animals. All of them. So, this is just a good time for me."
The warm sun shining on each outdoor exhibit provided a sense of relief for others.
"You know, we were grandparents, we were stuck home," said Michele Lasko of Jackson Township, New Jersey. "We didn't do a lot of stuff and now we're just starting to get back into the swing."
Although it is supported by the county government, the admission-free zoo relies on community donations to survive.
"For us at the zoo, our expenses remain the same whether we're open to the public or not," said Dr. Ernst. "Our bills were adding up, and we weren't bringing any revenue in."
Thankfully, the generosity of loyal patrons has kept the zoo open for what they hope to be a roaring spring and summer season this year.
The zoo's winter hours are 10:00am to 3:30pm daily. For more information, visit their website.
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