Paws Discovery Farm announced today that Garden State Discovery Museum has ended its management contract with the local petting zoo and farm. Under a three-year agreement, which expired Jan. 5, the museum managed the facility while the township has retained ownership of the property.
“It is with a heavy heart that the Discovery Museum has made the decision to end its management contract with Paws Discovery Farm,” Garden State Discovery Museum Director Kelly Lyons wrote on Paws’ Facebook page, facebook.com/paws.farm. “Mount Laurel Township solicited for a new partner and did not find a suitable match. Paws Farm will be closing and the animals will be going to new homes.”
Paws will be open tomorrow, Wednesday, Feb. 26., from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for a final day, offering free admission to its grounds.
The township council issued a press release roughly half an hour after Paws broke the news:
Mount Laurel Township officials are left scrambling after the Discovery Museum shockingly notified the Township that it would breach its three year contractual commitment to operate the PAWS Farm Nature Center on Hainesport-Mount Laurel Road just six months into its second three year term.
Simply unwilling to fulfill its contractual obligations, the Discovery Museum leadership closed the doors to the public on January 6th leaving the Township residents with a note on the door that the animals were hibernating. It then terminated most of the staff. The Township convinced Discovery Museum to leave a crew to care for the approximately 180 animals on site. Discovery provided the crew for only 60 days which expires at the end of February. The facility is regulated by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture with additional permitting through New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife.
“What is most disheartening is Discovery’s unplanned decision to abruptly close the doors. With no notice the Township has been left to struggle to save our local treasure. If they gave us time, we could probably find a new partner willing to operate the facility but, sadly, they have backed the Township into a corner and left little hope that we can keep the doors open. The Township itself simply can’t commit hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to maintain the facility, employ staff and feed and care for the animals,” said Mayor Irwin Edelson. “It’s disgraceful the position they left us in.”
The Township has been aggressively seeking a new partner to operate the facility but to date no other organization has stepped forward to lead the nature center into the future. In a last ditch effort, the Township set a February 20, 2020 proposal deadline for potential operators to present a plan to operate the facility for the next five years. Unfortunately, no qualified vendor committed to a long term plan for operation of PAWS.
Care of the animals remains the top priority. Thirty four of the animals are Township-owned. The Township simultaneously solicited other nature centers, zoos, corporate or private entities to re-house the Township’s animals. The Township found appropriate homes for most of the animals at zoos and other nature centers and sanctuaries. Discovery Museum would be responsible to caring for and rehousing its approximately 150 animals. The Township will keep a watchful eye on Discovery Museum to ensure that it appropriately and safely rehouses the animals if the Township cannot find a new provider by the end of the month.
“Discovery Museum’s actions are outrageous. The Township has bent over backwards to help the facility including repaving and expanding the parking lot just last year after the new three year deal was signed,” explained Township Manager Meredith Tomczyk, “Had they given any indication that they were having second thoughts, the Township could have spent those tax dollars in other areas and, equally important, had adequate time to find a new operator to continue the PAWS Farm mission.”
Councilman Stephen Steglik provided additional comments soon after the press release was dispatched: “The current situation regarding Paws Farm is unfortunate on many levels. Our most paramount concern is ensuring that all of the animals at the farm find a safe, secure and reputable new home.”
Lyons emphasized that this was not an easy reality to face.
“This was not a decision that was entered into lightly or quickly, despite the way it’s being painted currently,” she said. “There have been months of discussion about this.”
She cited the numerous expenses that have become too much for the Discovery Museum to afford.
“Unfortunately, there are constraints to operating a 300-year-old farm with an unpredictable amount of work that needs to be done, a mounting veterinarian bill, the costs of labor, the increase in minimum wage and an unpredictable attendance — if it rains, you will lose a whole month of revenue,” Lyons explained. “It was at a point where we’re just not in a position to continue going and feeling like we could sustain it for any length of time given all of those factors. We wanted to improve the quality of the animals’ lives and the facility itself, and we were meeting major financial constraints. We had to make decisions based on that.”
Lyons reiterated that the welfare of the more than 200 animals living on the property is of the utmost importance to everyone; while about 30 of those animals belong to the township, Lyons is adamant about doing right by the roughly 150 for which the Discovery Museum is responsible.
“We are hand-selecting where all of our animals are rehomed,” she said. “We are making sure that they are rehomed and put in places where they will be safe and secure and live long, happy lives. Some of the smaller ones are coming to the museum.”
She also expressed grateful for the partnership that the Discovery Museum, Paws and Mt. Laurel Township shared, as well as the public’s support over the past three years.
“Mt. Laurel Township has been and continues to be an amazing partner and really gave the farm a lot of support and resources. We worked very well with them and we really loved working with them,” Lyons said. “We greatly appreciate all the support everyone has given us and the farm.”
She hopes that offering a final day of free admission gives everyone a chance to say goodbye to Paws.
“I would like to give people closure, I would like to put people’s minds at ease if they have questions about where the animals are going,” she said, adding that she welcomes concerned animal-lovers to email their inquiries about the livestock’s future at firstname.lastname@example.org. “If people have questions about where the animals are going, I think I can answer most of them. I know pretty much where every single animal will be going.”
The community has responded to the news with an outpouring of shock, sadness, and fond memories as longtime fans and supporters of Paws took to Facebook to share what made the farm special to them. A petition to save Paws, which can be found at change.org/p/mount-laurel-township-save-paws-discovery-farm, reached 3,000 in a matter of hours.
Additional updates will be provided as they’re made available.