A look back... When lions and tigers roamed free

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A look back... When lions and tigers roamed free

Postby mergs » Mon Aug 13, 2007 7:09 am


A look back

When lions and tigers roamed free

WEST MILFORD. Back in 1972, Atari introduced Pong � the very first video game; Carole King swept the Grammys, winning Best Record, Album and Song of the year with Tapestry; Both “The Godfather� and “Deliverance� came out in theaters; and that summer, Warner Brothers opened a theme park where the animals roamed free and the people stayed caged up in their automobiles. It was called Jungle Habitat and spread over 800 acres of West Milford.

Even before it opened, Jungle Habitat was the biggest single employer West Milford ever had. Dick Nobis was one of the people hired to help put 26 miles of paved roads in the drive-through safari. Like most people who lived in West Milford at the time, one of the first memories he shared was of the traffic problems that first year. “It was crazy,� he said. “At the time, Route 23 was just a two-lane road. It was really something to see.�

The entrance to the park was on Greenwood Lake Turnpike and was � to make an understatement � inadequate for the amount of cars coming in. The traffic jams were legendary. Jim Dykstra, who was a sergeant on the West Milford Police force at the time, remembers standing all day, every day, directing traffic. “Oh, it was terrible. I was out there for hours and hours and it was so hot and so frustrating. Cars were constantly overheating and the drivers were all angry. Everyone was angry.�

Dykstra didn’t like the traffic problems of the summer of �72, but he has fond memories, too. “That place provided all the kids with jobs and brought a lot of money into West Milford,� he mused. “And on the good side, at night, because of where I lived, I could sometimes hear the lions roar. That was really nice.� A fellow former police officer, Lt. John Wax, was even more enthusiastic. “Jungle Habitat was the greatest thing West Milford ever had.�

Jim Novak remembers another problem. “There weren’t enough bathrooms,� he said. This led to some unpleasant roadside scenes. “But anyone with a tow truck made plenty of money.�

One such person was John Castronova. He and his sons Rich and Steven ran a Sunoco station (on Union Valley Road where the Tiger Mart is today) with a towing service. According to Rich, they received between two and three hundred calls a day for broken down cars at Jungle Habitat. They quickly went from one tow truck to a fleet of seven to try to keep up with demand.

“A lot of them simply needed water or a quick repair, which we would do right there � that’s what we hoped for when they broke down inside the compounds in the park, because the lions and tigers or whatever would be roaming around free. An employee would stand over us with a gun in his hands while we did whatever it was we had to do. I didn’t like the baboons; they were really fresh.�

To compliment their towing and car repair business, the Castronovas eventually also opened a taxi service. To this day, Rich believes the township made a huge mistake when it didn’t let Warner Brothers expand the park.

The Castronovas were by no means the only locals to profit from the park. Local restaurants and retail businesses were jammed all summer.

By the second season, Jungle Habitat built another entrance on Airport Road and added a parking lot. The traffic became much more manageable.

Rumors abound about the park. One common one is that dangerous animals escaped into the neighborhoods of West Milford. There were a few escapes, but they were by birds � an ostrich and a few peacocks.

The park was divided into compounds so that lions, for instance, wouldn’t come in contact with animals they would consider prey.

According to Dykstra, none of the dangerous animals ever breached the second, outer perimeter of the park.

Another persistent rumor is that people were killed in the park. That’s not true; however, there was an Israeli tourist who was in a hired car going through the park when he rolled down the window to take a photo of a lion. The lion reached in and swatted him, causing a lot of damage to his shoulder, arm and neck. Shortly after the attack, the tourist made a public statement taking responsibility.

By the third year, ticket sales were declining and Warner Brothers wanted to grow the park to include mechanical amusement rides such as roller coasters. But when they went to the township, they encountered resistance. Residents in Mountain Rise were particularly vocal in their opposition because of the night noise and lights the rides would bring. In the fourth year, Warner Brothers was denied its application. On October 31, 1976, the park closed its gates for good. The animals were sold off to zoos and parks, with the exception of some sickly ones. They died on the premises but weren’t buried until the spring because the ground was frozen.

Eventually, the land was bought by the state and today the 800 acres and 26 miles of pavement make for an interesting afternoon hike.
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Postby mergs » Wed Aug 22, 2007 7:27 am

Mick Tormey from SMART shared with me this story from yesteryear ;)

Mick wrote:I have a good story to tell about Jungle Habitat

I think it was 1973 My friend an I borrowed his mothers white 1971 454 corvette complete with factory side pipes. We took a ride from our hometown in Westchester NY to Jungle Habitat. We were cruising along in the park just fine until we got to the rhinoceros pen. Evidently the rumble of exhaust from the car sounded like a challenge to the stud of the pen. We stopped and took some pictures when all of a sudden we have the Rhino with the dullest horn in the pen putting his head down then he starts pawing at the ground. He raises his head a little snorts and charges at our car. The girls in the car next to us start to scream and the rhino stops his charge about ten feet from our car. He puts his head down again and we hear someone yell turn off your engine, turn off your engine. My friend turns off the car and the rhino raises his head snorts, turns and leaves. He Won!!! All my friend could think of was how he would of explained to his mother that a rhino smashed her car. I was thinking that the rhino would have been in the car with us had he charged one more time and we wouldn't have to worry about telling anyone anything

Cool story Mick...

I imagine a 2 year old '71 vette getting rammed by a Rhino :O

Rhino vs. Vette? My money's on the Rhino!
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Postby trailgorilla » Tue Feb 12, 2008 7:52 pm

Always bet on the one with the most armor.
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