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From Issue #50 August 28, 2014

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

A drive-through animal park in New Jersey finds new life.

By Jen A. Miller Twitter icon 

Forty-five miles northwest of New York City, up near the tippy top of the state of New Jersey, off the Greenwood Lake Turnpike, take a turn at the sign advertising where to sell scrap metal, and you’ll find an empty four-lane highway leading to an archway entrance that looks like it’s made of two-story Lincoln Logs. Behind the giant timbers are padlocked gates, and beyond the gates, four more empty, rolling paved lanes.

On a recent August afternoon, Kathy Tynan sat in her Honda Accord just outside those gates, driver’s side door open. A mountain bike was strapped to the roof of her car. “Do you remember what it was like then?” Tynan asks me as she puts on her mountain biking shoes. “I do.”

Inside the gates, it is mostly quiet, broken up by the noise of birds, cicadas, planes flying overhead, and bored teenagers. One such teen emerges from the woods on a skateboard and cruises across what used to be the main parking lot of this former theme park, using a six-foot-high branch as an oar to pull himself across the weed-cracked lot while he spits chewing tobacco.

The park, now crisscrossed with public trails, was Hollywood’s ill-fated and improbable attempt to grab a foothold in the wilds of New Jersey. I grew up in the state, and I had never heard the story until recently of Jungle Habitat’s fleeting existence. Just four years after the front gates first opened, everything fell apart.

The elephant next door

When Jungle Habitat opened in West Milford, New Jersey, on July 15, 1972, it was like “Disneyland coming to our area,” says Joe Phalon, who was 13 when he and his family attended opening day.

As it so seemed. The sleepy township of West Milford lies by a lake, woods, and a mountain near the New Jersey/New York border. It had 17,000 residents then, 25,000 in the latest census. Jungle Habitat would not only be a tourist draw — something to compete with the New Jersey beach towns that sucked away visitors all summer — but also a tax boon. It became the second largest taxpayer in West Milford by 1976, paying $190,000 of the municipality’s $2.3 million in property taxes that year.

“Come visit your new neighbors…” one newspaper ad proclaimed in bold type over a picture of elephants walking through a grassy plain. Under the picture: “They’re living just down the road at Warner Bros. Jungle Habitat. Drive through and see them all. The 1,500 animals and birds from around the world that now call West Milford, home. Through the windows of your people cage — your family car — you’ll see the animals living just as they do in the wild.”

At two bucks per kid under 12 and $3.75 a person for everyone older, you could drive one of two safari trails that were home to those 1,500 animals and birds. The park also had stage events with Warner Brothers characters, an animal nursery, a dolphin show, lions and tigers and bears and peacocks and flamingos and baboons and camels — oh my! Animal encounters were meant to be up close and personal, with animals often coming right up to, jumping on, or sitting on cars.

Judy Cesareo, Tynan’s mother, took Tynan and her siblings to Jungle Habitat in 1973. A camel stopped at the car while they were waiting for the car in front of them to move. “He put his foot between the two wheels so I couldn’t go forward or backward without rolling over his feet,” Cesareo says. She blew the horn, but he wouldn’t budge. So she rolled down the window and scratched his neck instead.

“He leaned harder and all the camels came running to the car,” she says. “Two camels closest to my car had a fight over the top of the car. I had camel teeth marks in the car ever after. It was a very interesting park. We enjoyed it.”

Gwen Marquardt, who has created a detailed and wonderful online museum about Jungle Habitat, lived in nearby Ringwood. Her family had a season pass for most of the years that the park was open. They often went after school, and whenever anyone visited that’s where they would go. She was six years old when Jungle Habitat closed.

“The Jungle Junction area was cool,” she says, referring to a walk-through section of the park. “But I just like the fact that these animals were lying around up in the park. It was just so surreal and bizarre in the middle of nowhere in West Milford that they were there.”

Too close for comfort

But things started going wrong from the start, when 40,000 visitors arrived during the first five days. Cars were backed up as far as four miles, and the park intermittently shut down because they couldn’t handle demand. Phalon says that and his family waited at least three hours in traffic, sitting in the rear-facing back seat of their Chevy station wagon with the back window down.

“We had sandwiches and cold soda and ice with us, so we were almost gloating to the people behind us that we had all kinds of cold drinks in the car,” he says.

Still, it wasn’t pleasant. Like a lot of cars from the 1970s, theirs didn’t have air conditioning, so they sat in the heat and waited. By the time his family made it into the park, the place had sold out of food and drinks. Most of the animals were asleep, too, though he did see one car broken down in the lion area. “They had three people with rifles standing around it while they serviced the car,” he says.

Traffic was so bad that weekend — the volume of visitors was compounded by cars breaking down — that emergency vehicles had trouble getting around. Angry residents blamed Jungle Habitat for the death of a three-year-old. They said he could have been saved if an ambulance had not been delayed by the traffic, according to a Suburban Trends newspaper report.

And then there were the problems within the park. Visitors were instructed to keep their windows rolled up, so they cranked the air conditioning, if the car had it, which led to overheating and breakdowns. Jungle Habitat reported that they paid $8,500 for towing services the first Monday it was open.

Some of those without AC ignored the warnings and rolled down their windows anyway. That’s how Abraham Levy, a 26-year-old Israeli tourist visiting friends in Brooklyn, was allegedly mauled by a lion. Suburban Trends noted he suffered severe “lacerations of the face and right shoulder, muscle tears and a severed nerve in the neck,” and his ear was torn off.

Fingers were pointed even before Levy got out of the hospital. David Nagr, who was driving the car, said that the park created a false sense of security, and Levy and his friends didn’t understand signs to keep the windows rolled up because they did not speak English or Spanish.

Nagr also blamed the traffic backup within the park for the slow park ranger response. Jungle Habitat’s spokesperson fired back that a ranger was there in 30 seconds. “All the signs are in English en route from Brooklyn to the Habitat,” Kerry Smith told Suburban Trends. “How did they get here if they couldn’t read English?”

It got worse. In 1974, a woman was allegedly bitten and slammed against a fence by a baby elephant. (She settled with Warner Brothers for $200,000, according to the New York Times.) West Milford residents woke up to wolves, peacocks, and baboons in their yards. Jungle Habitat was accused of not preventing animal droppings from polluting water, and then of delaying implementation of a sanitization system after they agreed to fix the problem. Two West Milford councilmen were investigated for conflict of interest, since they both served on the planning board and had contracts for work with Jungle Habitat.

Even after $2 million in traffic improvement measures were paid for by Warner Brothers, even after the chlorination plant was finally put in place, even though the park provided more than 300 jobs and $190,000 in tax receipts a year, the relationship with the town remained strained. And the park was in trouble too. Visitor totals kept declining, and the park reported a total of $3.5 million in operating losses over four years.

“The novelty had worn off,” Phalon says. “You went once or twice when it opened, and then after that it was the same thing. How many times can you go?”

Sick flags over West Milford

Warner Brothers made a last-ditch effort to save the park by applying for permits to build “carnival-type rides” much like what opened at a Six Flags Great Adventure in central New Jersey in 1974. West Milford residents, especially those whose homes would have been close to the rides, revolted. When the planning board asked Warner Brothers to revise their plans, they declined, and then closed the park in the fall of 1976. (Warner Brothers declined to comment for this story.)

Audrey Haluza worked at Jungle Habitat during its last summer and fall. After the park closed, she wrote a letter to the editor published in Suburban Trends defending it, pointing out that not only did it provide jobs for local high school and college students, but that it also provided a spot that is “peaceful and serene, like being in the middle of nowhere.” She worked in guest services, where she saw how kids on school trips reacted to seeing lions fight and bears stand on their hind legs, and getting to shake hands with Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny.

When we spoke recently, she was still sad at the loss of the park, not just because of her job then, but also because of what the park provided: “Some good, clean family entertainment,” she says. “Nothing goes on up there,” Marquardt says. “It closing was the death blow to West Milford, in my view.” She says Warner Brothers was willing to throw more money at the failing park, but only if they could add new attractions.

The end of Jungle Habitat meant a loss in property taxes for a town that needs it, she says. “The fact is that West Milford can’t even sustain a movie theater at this point — there’s nothing to do there.”

The spring following its closing, 28 unburied animal carcasses were found on the site, many dismembered and disemboweled, according to the New York Times. One was a decapitated elephant. Though the state did not seek to press charges, it concluded that Warner Brothers had been lax in its process but not at fault: it would have been difficult to bury those bodies during the winter.

Rumors still abound that Warner Brothers left all 1,500 animals on the site and that the animals then cross-bred; in fact, most were sold when the park closed. Talk to anyone in West Milford and they have a story to tell, like a biker who saw a liger or a hunter who found an odd-looking deer, or about hearing shots fired by poachers trying to recover elephant bodies so they could steal the ivory.

Jungle Habitat shares West Milford with Clinton Road, a winding route that has a long history of rumors and alleged interactions with the supernatural. It’s not an odd place at all for urban myths about dead and still-living animals to sprout.

Leaving new tracks

I park outside Jungle Habitat next to four cars, all with bike racks, including Tynan’s Honda. The gates are padlocked against vehicles, but there’s an opening for people to walk or carry their bikes through. The main paved road behind the gates has faded yellow and white lines, and it’s patched in places. It undulates along with the terrain. Snapped telephone poles, rusted guardrails, and fallen trees that have crushed barbed-wire-topped fences line the road.

Teenagers, bikers, and ATV riders have haunted the park since it closed. Marquardt admits that she was one of them. She remembers coming across a squatter she and her friends knew only as Mr. White. A lot of the structures were still standing then, though many signs had been removed or stolen.

Tom Hennigan, an officer of the Jersey Off Road Bicycle Association (JORBA), said he rode the park almost as soon as he moved to the area in 1999. One popular JORBA spot is called Dump Truck Hill because there was an abandoned dump truck on top, though at some point before the park re-opened, the dump truck disappeared.

Plans to redevelop the property came and went, including an effort by Warner Brothers to rezone part of it for housing. Finally, in 1988 the state of New Jersey bought it and put it under the authority of Ringwood State Park.

In 2006, JORBA obtained permission to start building trails in the park, and that November more than 50 volunteers went in and filled two dumpsters with “junk and/or things that were deemed unsafe,” says Arthur White, volunteer coordinator for Ringwood State Park (and no relation to the squatter). That included partially collapsed buildings and a lot of jagged metal. “If you’re going to be promoting use, you wouldn’t want people to fall on that kind of stuff,” he says.

Today there are about 12 miles of what Jeff Mergler calls “stacked loops” of single-track trails. (Mergler was part of the original trail-building group but now lives in Washington State.) Stacked loops incorporate smaller loops into bigger ones. A walker can pick a one-mile course that loops from the parking lot and back while trail runners can extend a route to a total of three to five miles, and mountain bikers can ride the full extent. “The idea was that we would stack these loops and cater to all,” Mergler says. Single-track trails are about 18 inches wide, which is big enough for people on bikes or on foot, but not for ATVs.

JORBA continues to plan and build more trails with Ringwood State Park’s approval. “The more legitimate trail users you can put into a piece of property, the less of the illegitimate trail users there will be,” Mergler says.

Tynan, the biker I met when I first parked at Jungle Habitat, visited the park twice as a kid. “It felt like a jungle atmosphere,” she says. Though now, as an adult, she’s been back far more often with her mountain bike, and she sent me her own cellphone snaps of the tiger cage bones the day after we met.

Instead of trail building with the dozen volunteers who show up the August afternoon I visit the park, Tom Hennigan and I drove the road that was called Safari 1. This is not a path normally open to cars, but JORBA has keys and permission.

Though broken and rutted in spots, the roads are in better shape than I expected after 40 years of neglect. Even so, my Civic would have failed me here. Fortunately, I’d borrowed a four-wheel drive car for the trip. Branches scrape its sides as we roll by what used to be the baboon cages and tiger cages.

The fences for those cages are still there — or at least partially. Where the baboons once lived, now called the Boon Trail, you can still find antennas and strips of rubber that they had ripped off visitors’ cars. On a rock inside the tiger cage, people have stacked bones left over from the cattle the tigers once ate. Near the end of the trail, under two tunnels that lead to what had been the park’s stage, the ticket booth still stands, rotted and empty, next to a bamboo forest from which people still harvest.

There is an air of abandonment here, even though the park is open and used. On September 21, JORBA will hold JORBA in the Jungle–Jungle Jam 2014, a fundraiser that will feature group rides and kids’ rides. Race Through the Jungle, the park’s first official trail-running event, will take place October 19.

“It’s not creepy,” says Dave Van Wart, the Jungle Habitat park representative for JORBA. He’s right. The park is more densely forested now, as newer trees as wide as my fist have taken over areas that had been clearcut. And most of the old Jungle Habitat has been stripped out of the park, leaving little to remind you of the possibility of being attacked by ligers or stumbling across decapitated elephant carcasses.

Despite the absence of lions and tigers and tourists, it remains, as Haluza wrote in 1976, “peaceful and serene, like being in the middle of nowhere.”

Contemporary photos by the author. Historical photo of bear courtesy Gwen Marquardt.

The author offers special thanks to Bruce Gilliard of the West Milford Township Library, who pulled a ream of articles about Jungle Habitat from the Suburban Trends archives for her; Gwen Marquardt, for allowing the use of photos from her archives; and JORBA, for answering endless rounds of questions (and for the bug spray).

Jen A. Miller is a freelance writer based in the great Garden State. She is a regular contributor to the New York Times, Runner's World, Running Times, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in Collingswood.

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