Posted by Jenn Thorson at 7:00 AM Labels: being a kid, childhood field trips, goliath, nature, new jersey, space farms, world's largest bear
"A rat! Aiiieeeee, it's a rat! A giant, huge, hideous, disease-carrying rat!" a ten-year-old me shrieked and ran into the house breaking the land-speed record for a single-jet, corn-flake-powered pre-teen.
The offending "rat," we learned was, in fact, an unlucky baby opossum. Unlucky, not just because it had fallen out of its safe tree, but because it had a run-in with a flying, exploding, elementary school banshee out to ruin its moment of quiet contemplation and tree-logistical problem-solving.
But given that this was north-central Jersey, where wildlife pretty much consists of stray dogs and groundhogs flattened off Route 46, my confusion of marsupial with plague-spreading rodent really was understandable.
It's not as if, among the strip malls, pizza parlors, doughnut shops and bowling alleys we had much chance to commune with nature.
And that's why one year in elementary school— in a quest to expand our horizons and expose us to the Joys of the Natural World— my class went to explore the wonders of "Space Farms Zoo and Museum."
Space Farms' claim to fame, back in the 80s, was it was the home of Goliath, the "World's Largest Bear." On the billboards and TV advertisements, the 12-foot-tall, 2,000 pound Alaskan brown bear was shown roaring at the cameras. A proud representative of all that was wild and proud and toothy in the Animal Kingdom.
We arrived at the attraction, our young hearts drumming a rap beat in excitement. Animals... real animals... something beyond dogs and cats and the classroom hamster which peed on us daily. This was what life was about!
And look-- there in that cage-- a lion! King of Beasts!
Only this was the old, fat, jumpsuited King. Not the young, slvete, gyrating King.
This King was one step away from having a coronary over his last fried peanut butter and gazelle sandwich. He looked like he'd soon give his final roar in the Space Farms litter box.
We hastened on, bowing our heads in respect.
Next we came upon a cage of monkeys, who tried to hustle us for money and banana slices... "C'mon, baby, just one little slice of banana... One slice... you can hook me up, can't you?"
Then there was the hyena who did stand-up prop acts with creaking vaudeville jokes and then angrily heckled us until a few kids cried... "Aw, you wouldn't know funny if it came up and bit yer tail.. Yeah, go cry to yer mama..."
There were buffalo roaming the sweeping 50-foot pen... And llamas hanging out on street corners and spitting.
But then we saw it. The great Emperor of the Forest we'd all been waiting for. Goliath! The World's Largest Bear.
"Is he dead?" one of my classmates asked.
"No, I think I can see him breathing a little."
"There where those gnats are all landing."
He laid there in the bottom of his cage, looking at us with glazed eyes, one group of onlookers as any other in an endless, blurry parade.
Like a plus-sized woman in a tiny spandex shirt, it was hard to tell if Goliath really was as large as was claimed. Or if his cage just was three sizes too small.
Fur was missing in patches. Flies buzzed around his head and, long ago, he'd given up doing anything about them. They were close personal friends now. And it depressed him, because just about the time he'd really get to know one, its 72-hour lifespan would be over and it would die.
Silent, we moved on to the Museum portion of the attraction. The varied collections of the Space family, for which the farms were named.
We threaded through displays of vintage cars and dinosaur bones and the skulls of long-dead Native Americans, propped up, labeled and lit for our viewing.
Then— to tie nicely in with the animals we just met outside— we saw Space Farms' wide collection of beasts, stuffed or in jars. Probably once part of the outdoor zoo, now they were entombed in sawdust and glass cases, or thriftily cradled in empty peanut butter jars and thick yellow-clear fluids, still entertaining visitors in some last macabre irony of showmanship.
Yes, Birth, Growth, Death, Skippy jar... such is the Circle of Life.
At the giftshop, classmates bought velvet flocked animals to take home with them, a token to remember our fine, furred friends of the animal kingdom.
That was when I, having no souvenir money, found a whole quarter on the ground. A quarter! It glinted in the sun. Yes, this terrific streak of luck was the talk of the classroom the rest of the year.
So with it, I bought the only thing $0.25 cents could get you back then. A metal drink coaster, bearing scenes of happy Space Farms days and the attraction logo.
Today, as I refreshed my mind with details of this unique place, I discovered that in addition to having the World's Largest Bear, Space Farms had yet another honor bestowed on it:
According to Roadside America, it was named one of Parade Magazine's 1989 "Ten Worst Zoos in America."
I also learned that our dear friend Goliath never really left.
Yes, his spirit may be roaming free among the shady Alaskan trees, along snow-encrusted mountains. But his body has been mounted Space Farms-style... Tucked in a fireplace display, between a case of guns and a hat-rack made of antlers.
I look at the photo and can almost hear the gift shop's piped-in Musak, as it plays crackling strains of a familiar tune... The Eagles' Hotel California.
"You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave..."
That's right-- sing it, fellas. Nature in North Jersey.
Goliath-- I salute you.