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Who says you can’t get something for nothing? At the Cape May Zoo, for the price of an optional (but always appreciated) donation, you get more than just “something” - you get something pretty great.

The zoo - officially Cape May County Park and Zoo - is snuggled in a 128-acre wooded plot a mile north of Cape May Courthouse. Although it lacks the history, the size, or the impressive attractions of its closest rival, the Philadelphia Zoological Gardens, the 80-acre Cape May Zoo treats its visitors to a zoo of a different sort - a zoo where it’s possible to get to know the animal residents, see them (for the most part) without bars or barriers, and enjoy a leisurely (but not overwhelming) walk in the nicely planned habitats where the animals live.

When you drive up to the park and make your optional donation, you are handed a map of the zoo. Before entering that area, however, take note of the surroundings - a sprawling park with two playground areas and a tot lot (where youngsters delight in “driving” an ambulance - stationary, of course!) encompassed by a winding track just perfect for biking, power walking and rollerblading. Although there is a snack bar onsite, the prices there are almost as steep as those of its big city counterpart, so be sure to take advantage of the numerous picnic benches and bring in your own brown bag lunch. (You can stop at the produce stands along the way and pick up some fresh strawberries or bananas for dessert. Also nearby is a Wawa convenience store, so if you forget your lunch you can pick up the makings of a meal - or at least a bunch of lunchables and some juice boxes! - before heading into the park.)

The zoo itself is home to over 100 different species of animals. Although it is quite smaller (and a lot cheaper!) than most major zoos, the “headline” animals - lions, bears, monkeys and giraffes - can be found in this wildlife setting. Yet the size of the surroundings makes it easier to see the animals “up close” because there are none of those large-bar type cages usually associated with zoos (and jails!) Instead, animals roam behind barrier fences or in mesh-wire cages where clear viewing and even a decent picture of your favorite bald eagle or leopard is possible!

Upon entering the zoo, take note of the gorgeous snowy owl that inquires “Who!” is entering, then go to the farm area, where children can feed the recognizable inhabitants. Llamas seem standoffish, preferring to wait for pellets to be placed in their feeding dishes, but the friendly pot bellied pigs will rush up to anyone who offers a handful of feed. Goats and sheep also share the fenced in barn area.

A tragic fire in May 1998 destroyed the zoo’s wooden reptile house and most of its reptilian inhabitants (only four alligators and three turtles, which were sleeping outside, escaped the blaze). However, the recently-built reptile house, which opened its doors in October 1999, is a hit with children and adults alike. The glass enclosures are fine showcases for the iguanas, boa constrictors and crocodiles that call Cape May home. One complaint, though - the lizard and snake cages were “double decker” and it was impossible for young children to peer at their reptile buddies without a boost from a taller companion. That’s a lot of lifting for a mom of three or four to do, although the kids’ delight at the hissing animals more than makes up for the backache.

Young children particularly enjoyed the antics of the tamarind monkeys, who obliged us with wild gymnastic-like moves as they danced across the vines in their homes. Older kids seemed entranced by the graceful big cats, including cougars, tigers, leopards and lions who roared (it was around dinner time, after all) to the delight of the crowd who gathered to watch the pride eat.

One very unique aspect of the park is the savannah, where visitors to the zoo can walk on wooden ramps above the simulated grasslands and plains. Looking down, you can spot large bison, prancing antelope, grazing giraffes and even a wandering ostrich or two. A special treat is the sighting of a white tailed deer - the deer are not “zoo animals” per se, but are welcome on the park’s ground for sanctuary at all times of the year. Smarter deer start showing up at hunting season, because the only thing you can shoot in the zoo is a picture!

The zoo also boasts a wonderful bird house, where scarlet ibis, pink flamingos and peacocks can show off their feathered finery. No touching is allowed, of course, but the birds seem pleased to pose for a picture or two, and may even sing to you before you leave.

The Cape May zoo is open all year from 9 am to 5 pm. It is located at Route 9 and Crest Haven Road in Cape May, NJ.