Animal House

At New Jersey’s Turtle Back Zoo, Humans Slept Alongside the Pythons

The zoo had power, and the emergency human shelter did not. Winston Ross explains what happened next.

Jeremy Goodman knew he’d have to save the 700 animals that inhabit northern New Jersey’s Turtle Back Zoo from Hurricane Sandy. The zoo director knew he’d marshal his staff, round the creatures up, and get them inside storm-resistant, generator-powered buildings. What he didn’t realize is that he’d also have more than two dozen human guests for the night as well.

As Sandy approached, Goodman and his staff stocked up on food and water, filled the Essex County, N.J., zoo’s generators with gasoline, and stocked those rooms he knew would have power with ample air mattresses, sleeping bags, and cots for his staff. He and his crew worked right through the storm, fighting fierce winds to get from building to building, wearing glowing necklaces and flashlights once the power went out. The wind toppled 80-foot-tall trees, which scattered across the property, taking out a perimeter fence, a train tunnel, and an animal obstacle course.

One by one, Goodman and his workers moved the animals to safety and monitored their health. They put out a heating pad for Shu, the Kimodo dragon. They gave a sedative to Methos, the alpha-male wolf, because he seemed particularly anxious. Then the power went out next door, at a shelter housed by the Essex County Office of Emergency Management. That building had no heat, no generator.

So Goodman invited 25 people to spend the night in the zoo. He brought out animals to entertain the kids and set up extra cots in the reptile house, where erstwhile shelter inhabitants slept next to pythons and poisonous tree frogs.

"People are having a once-in-a-lifetime sleepover,” he told Newsweek. “We couldn’t turn them away.”