Space Farms: Wildlife's Final Frontier

"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.



C.B. Jones said...

The circle of life is a lot more depressing than I thought. I hope the jar they put my brain in is at least cool looking.

Jenn Thorson said...

CB.-- Alas, C.B.'s brain, once roaming free and saying what appears to be "moo" in its avatar caption ends up pickled and popped into a jar of Hamburger Dills... (shakes head)

racheld said...

At least they stuffed him---I was wondering where they'd get an industrial-size jar to fit.

I love popping in for your latest fun post!

I've had a tiny experience with the taxidermy trade, though not by choice:

Looking forward to every day's adventure via your wit and wisdom,


Da Old Man said...

Space Farms is legendary. In our 'hood we had the Terry Loo Zoo. Bunch of really depressed animals.

Nothing Profound said...

One of the ten worst, heh! Now I'm curious about the other nine. Wondering what marvels they have to offer!

Jenn Thorson said...

Rachel- Heh, excellent tie-in with the jar. That would have posed a problem, though I suspect they were creative enough for some kind of unusual work-around. So glad you're enjoying the blog, it's a pleasure to meet you.

Da Old Man- I haven't heard of the Terry Loo Zoo. The only other zoo in Jersey I've been to was the Turtleback Zoo. I'm not actually sure where that's located anymore.

Nothing Profound- Heh, yes, I know-- it really does give pause for thought, doesn't it? :)

chyna said...

Poor Goliath! What kind of misfortune must have fallen him to end up in that horrid zoo and to be so close to the big time zoo too! At least the animals in Madagascar seemed pretty happy. ;)

stillthinking said...

Yeesh, that was quite depressing. Thank god I never saw it or I might have ended up crying. Poor animals! I have always been a little uncomfortable about zoos. Whereas I love indulging my curiosity about wild animals, I always feel quite a bit of guilt for them living their lives in captivity.

timethief said...

I'm happy to report that I was home schooled so as a child I was never experienced a "field trip" to a zoo. This is a good thing because like stillthinking I would have been weeping. When I did go to zoos as an adult I was appalled at what I saw and have never returned to them.

Jenn Thorson said...

Chyna- I can't even imagine. Going from Alaska to North Central Jersey-- it couldn't have been a picnic.

Still- It was such a weird place, you might have been distracted by the strangeness of it all, at least while you were there.

TimeThief- Oh, field trips were often a lot of fun-- we looked forward to them immensely each year, no matter what they were. There are some lovely zoos, though-- this one in particular just was...erm... unique.

Chris@Maugeritaville said...

OMG! SPACE FARMS! I remember that place from when I was a kid growing up in Jersey! And the Hotel California thing got me thinking . . .

On a dark Jersey highway
Light rain in my hair
Warm smell of industrial waste
Risin' up through the air . . .

Jenn Thorson said...

Chris- That's right, you're a former Jerseyan, too! Thank you for the Hotel, er, Beemerville lyrics. :) Since you're around my age, I think, I imagine Goliath was alive then for you all to see (and not stuffed in the lobby).

Anonymous said...

I had a very similar experience to yours when I was little. I begged and begged to go to the zoo to see the newly acquired lions. And you guess what happened when we got there. Absolutely nothing. I watched for an hour as the king of the jungle layed like a stone doing nothing more than swatting flies with his tail. Thank God the penguins were exciting.

Nooter said...

Animals... real animals... something beyond dogs

as a contemplative canine, i appreciate your not grouping me into the same ark with the rest of those social misfits. thank you

jay said...

Ugh ... sounds grim, indeed. :( I've seen some bad zoos in my time, but nothing with formaldehyde jars, thank heavens.

The nearest horror to that would be Ripley's 'Believe It Or Not', which I misguidedly took the boys into one time. Even they didn't enjoy it that much.

chyna said...

We have an exhibit much like freetheunicorn's lions. Ours is a wolverine, been to our zoo several times now for various reasons and have yet to see this mystery animal. I think it is some sort of sick gag the zoo employees have set up. Put a sign on an empty exhibit then sit and watch the people strain to see the "animal". Our tiger seems to sleep alot too, wonder how long it took for anyone to notice it had died. :(

Jenn Thorson said...

FreetheUnicorns- Oh, the penguins are always so much fun. They can, however, stand there contemplating jumping in for quite a while... right on the edge... taunting.

Nooter- And you, as a dog, stand alone. I mean, I've met some smart dogs before, but you take the biscuit for brains!

Jay- Oh, I imagine Ripley's might be strange like that. That fine line between weird and educational.

Chyna- So you think they've just done like Kevin Kline in the movie "Fierce Creatures" and have bought an electronic animal for the display? :) It would be a funny Candid Camera kind of show to see if people pretend to see animals in displays where there are none.

Lauren said...

this is so depressing but funny at the same time... it reminds me a lot of a "marine zoo" i went to in southern florida... the animals were so depressed and the trainers (who looked old and depressed themselves) would halfheartedly try to get them to do tricks... then shrug and say something like "guess she's not up to it today..."

i couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry...

Chaotically Calm said...

Hey Jenn,

This trip sounds all types of disgusting and depressing except for finding that there quarter dollar. Honestly I feel bad for the dying Goliath I mean he couldn't even die with dignity. And to add insult to injury he was probably stuffed and mounted on a wall to go on display in the museum part of the attraction.