Local organization advocates for closure of Johnson Park Animal Haven citing animal mistreatment
Friends of the Johnson Park Animals (FJPA) is an organization calling for the closure of the Johnson Park Animal Haven zoo in Piscataway citing poor treatment of the animals living on the site.
Ann Marie Kleiber, a member of FJPA, said the group was founded in September 2021 after individuals discovered that zoo animals were left in their exhibits while Tropical Storm Ida flooded the area.
Taylor Myers, a fellow member of FJPA, said that despite the entire facility being located in a Federal Emergency Management Agency flood zone, the zoo still does not have a solid evacuation plan in place.
“There is no good evacuation plan in place because the closest facility where the county can provide refuge is 20 minutes away at Merrill Park,” she said. “They also don't even have a horse trailer, so there would have to be multiple trips. This isn't feasible in an actual emergency scenario.”
Myers said that following Tropical Storm Ida, one goat has died and at least five fawns have gone missing. She said the county has tried to minimize the effect of the storm on the zoo’s animals, stating that the missing fawns died from a disease.
She said that even before the storm, the zoo’s animals faced poor living conditions, malnutrition and mistreatment. Visitors are allowed by zoo staff to feed animals unhealthy foods including doughnuts and fries, causing many of the animals to become obese or diabetic, she said.
Additionally, Myers said the zoo provides its animals with inadequate shelter, infrequent veterinary care and unheated water, meaning it can freeze in cold temperatures.
Following the storm, the Middlesex Board of County Commissioners promised that the zoo's animals would be moved to sanctuaries, earning significant support from voters, Myers said.
“The county commissioners announced before the election they would close the zoo, earning them countless votes from their constituents,” she said. “Once the election was over, they immediately ... announced they no longer planned to release the animals to sanctuaries as per our plan.”
In addition to supporting a recall election for commissioners who rescinded their decision to close the zoo, Myers said the FJPA has launched a public campaign against the facility — holding three protests at Johnson Park and creating three petitions that have amassed nearly 10,000 signatures in total.
She said the group met with Rick Lear, Middlesex County's director of parks and recreation, who agreed to begin the process of sending zoo animals to sanctuaries. Myers said the group worked with Lear to compile a list of sanctuaries for the animals to be released to and was able send some animals to these locations.
"Lear agreed to this plan, set up site visits, vetted all our sanctuaries, scheduled pick-up dates and even let some animals go to their new forever homes," she said. "Unfortunately, the process stopped abruptly, and he ghosted the remaining sanctuaries."
After a video of the zoo's conditions gained popularity on Facebook, Myers said FJPA worked with some county commissioners to plan the release of two pigs and a ram to an animal sanctuary called Uncle Neil’s Home.
Rian Feldman, the founder and president of Uncle Neil’s Home, said she had veterinarians perform medical assessments on the animals after they were released and discovered that their chronic illnesses were caused by humans. Since receiving care at the sanctuary, the animals’ ailments have been resolved, she said.
“For these three animals, their lives are no longer at risk," Feldman said. "Their situations were remedied, but for everyone else at the zoo, they are still in danger.”
Middlesex County has assigned a consultant to study the current situation at the zoo, but the two firms hired by the county have not yet released any of the findings for the public to view.
"The Board of County Commissioners intends to solicit a professional to do an assessment and review all of the infrastructure in Middlesex County," Middlesex County Board of Commissioners President Ronald G. Rios said in an article on mycentraljersey.com. "It will give an assessment of all of the parks and what we can do with those animals to make sure they are safe and in a good place — whether it be in our county park system or whether it be to go to a sanctuary or to zoos."
In a meeting of the Middlesex County Board of Commissioners held on Dec. 16, 2021, Rios said the plan for the future of the County's parks and recreation system is to work with Zoo Advisors, a service that specializes in strategic and business planning, which has also worked with Turtle Back Zoo in the past.
"The assessment and recommendations that Zoo Advisors will make will also include exploration of all options relative to the animals under the County’s care to identify the best possible homes for these animals, whether in other areas of Johnson Park that are not under the real threat of severe flooding due to climate change at our other park facilities or at independent sanctuaries," Rios said.
The county also continues to hold county commissioner meetings in which individuals attend to advocate for the release of the animals. The most recent meeting was held on Jan. 20.
Feldman said she will continue attending the Middlesex County Commissioner’s meetings in order to urge Commissioners to close the zoo and release the animals to sanctuaries. She said they also will continue to work with the FJPA to support them and provide help until the zoo is officially closed.
Going forward, Myers said that FJPA will continue to push and will document every negative condition provided for the animals until they are to be released to sanctuaries.
“If they run a thorough investigation and find — like we believe they will — the setting and care are unfit for animals, we will ensure the animals go to the sanctuaries who have been vetted and waiting for months,” Myers said. “If they decide to keep the animals at (Johnson Park Animal Haven) or under their care, we will continue to document every condition and bring it to public attention. We are determined to not ‘forget’ about this and let it fizzle out.”
Editor's Note: This article was updated on Jan. 31 with additional reporting.