CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE, N.J. - When the Cape May County Park and Zoo opened in 1978, it wasn't much more than a plot of land off Route 9 with a few goats and some chickens.
But from humble beginnings, the place has grown from a petting zoo featuring mostly barnyard critters into a 200-acre facility with more than 600 animals, including 250 rare and exotic species.
Want to see cheetahs? Cape May has them. African bongos, the largest and heaviest of the forest antelopes? They're here, too. Lions, kookaburras, anteaters? They're all at the mid-sized zoo, which until about a decade ago was mostly a rainy-day family destination.
From fewer than 10,000 visitors a year, the zoo - one of 218 facilities nationwide accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums - is now visited by more than 500,000 people annually, say county officials.
"Our parking lots are full even on nice, sunny days. We're very proud of that," said zoo director and veterinarian Dr. Hubert "Doc" Paluch, whose staff is hosting a variety of events to celebrate the zoo's 30th birthday, including evening tours, concerts and new educational programs.
Paluch cites the economy and a trend toward "green" pursuits among the reasons why the Cape May Zoo is packing them in.
"This park and zoo not only does its part in preserving open space and wetlands in an area where that is shrinking, it's also always been a place where families can come and enjoy an entire day together without spending very much," he said.
The facility, which relies heavily on funding from the county government, doesn't charge admission. As he directs drivers to the parking area, a volunteer collects dollars and coins in a plastic bucket bearing the word "Donations" in black marker.
Of the facility's $1.1 million operating budget last year, about $620,000 came from donations, which helped pay the salaries of 10 employees.
So popular has the zoo become that the county is expanding its parking, says Lenora Boninfante, a spokeswoman for Cape May County.
Brenda Douglas, of St. Davids, Pa., dropped a $20 bill into the pail on a recent morning before easing her family's SUV into the lot.
"I don't think that even covers the enjoyment we get out of coming here," said Douglas, who summers in Stone Harbor and often brings her three children to the zoo.
They enjoy the picnic area in the adjoining park and the miniature electric train that carries kids around the perimeter of the zoo.
But mostly, Douglas and others say, they come to see the animals, imaginatively displayed in exhibits such as the 57-acre African Savanna, where giraffe, zebra, bongo, ostriches, and other species roam while visitors view them from a raised boardwalk.
Along the shaded trail of an area called Pathway to Diversity, zoo-goers encounter habitats containing endlessly entertaining ring-tailed lemurs, kookaburras, red pandas, and spotted and snow leopards.
Cougars, cheetahs, tigers, and lions nap nearby in shady, grassy areas. Bison, elk and black bears roam, as do camels, giant anteaters, monkeys, prairie dogs, and wallabies, all in their own exhibits.
There is also a small-mammal area for skunks, raccoons, and red foxes. And a farm-animal exhibit - with the requisite goats, chickens, pigs, and sheep - is still among the favorite stops along a path that winds through 85 acres of woodland.
The World of Birds aviary is home to more than 20 species that live amid lush vegetation and a cascading waterfall. And the beloved Reptile House - rebuilt with about $700,000 in public donations after a devastating fire killed more than 70 species in 1998 - is another favorite stop.
These days the must-see at the Reptile House is the pointy-snout Tomistoma, a rare Asian crocodile that can grow to be more than 15 feet long. No more than a dozen zoos in the United States have one.
Despite its mid size, Cape May zoo has gained international recognition for its participation in a number of important conservation projects, Paluch said.
In one, the Mountain Bongo Repatriation Project, a female bongo born at the zoo was brought to Kenya, where severe poaching and habitat destruction had driven the mammals to near-extinction. The two calves born so far will help repopulate depleting stocks in that country, Paluch said.
"You may hear more about zoos like the San Diego Zoo or the Bronx but it's really in many small and medium-sized zoos, like Cape May County's, where important works like the bongo repatriation project are going on," said Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
"It's within these smaller facilities that the expertise and the care for these kinds of projects resides," Feldman said.
But some visitors remain impressed simply by how the Cape May zoo has grown.
"I've been coming to this zoo since it opened," said Sal Bellopede, 56, of Alden, Pa.
"I brought my kids here when they were little, and now they're 34, and I bring my grandchildren here. I can't believe what they started with and now what they have here now. You could spend all day."