How like a dream

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It feels like a strange dream now, but the forests of West Milford, NJ were once home to herds of zebras, packs of lions, and meandering rhinoceroses.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the closure of Jungle Habitat, which gives us a good reason to ogle the Warner Brothers park all over again. Jungle Habitat opened in July of 1972, packing 1,500 animals into the park’s 928 acres. In its short life the park saw over six million visitors, but Warner Brothers was in the red $3.5 million coming out of the 1976 season. They proposed an expansion, shifting focus to amusement park style rides. The township, wary of traffic, voted it down. Warner Brothers shipped off the animals and walked away.

The property sat abandoned until 1989, when New Jersey bought it from Warner Brothers for $1.5 million. Jungle Habitat is now public space; the safari trails open to anyone who wants to hike or bike, and explore the ruins along the way. So I tossed my bike onto my Jeep and drove to Airport Road.

The trails that snake the property are not maintained, but washouts, downed trees, and random unexpected obstacles make the trek feel like an adventure. There are two primary routes: the paved footpaths which wind through the old Jungle Junction portion, an on-foot section more akin to a zoo; and the famous safari roads, where visitors could literally drive the family sedan through a pride of lions. There are forks everywhere, so take a map, or grab a cellphone photo of the one at the entrance.

After gawking at how massive the overgrown parking lot is, you’ll find relics around every turn: broken down ticket booths and tiger pens, the old swimming hole and otter slide, the bamboo forest which has spread wild.

The property is at once exciting and haunting, as the realization sets in that these sad scraps are all that remain of millions of people’s fond childhood memories. I met a middle-aged man who was biking alone. As a child he came here with his “old man.” He remembered the monkeys most vividly, and the animals around the cars as his father drove through the safari.

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West Milford, NJ