One Man Follows His Dream—Ends Up in the Zoo
For a kid with a fascination for reptiles—and just about any other critter—Joe Fortunato’s pleasure in his childhood travels to Michigan, Illinois, the
Poconos, and the Jersey shore was as much about the different animals he’d find in those environs as it was the family members who lived there.
Not that family and his Pennsylvania home don’t mean a lot to him—they brought him back from an idyllic life with an exotic animal and plant collection he’d amassed over six years in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. But the fascination never left him, and nothing has kept him from fulfilling his dream of sharing his regard for the creatures of the earth and sky with people of all ages.
Joe Fortunato, aka Jungle Joe Fortunato, is the Founder and Executive Director of the Bucks County Zoo & Conservation Society in Warminster—Bucks County’s first and only exotic animal zoo. And proud as he is of his own family—wife Tara, son Joseph, five, and daughter Cappie, three—he is bursting with unquenchable enthusiasm for the success of this venture.
“When I started my business of doing traveling live animal shows a couple of years ago, I never thought it would get this big, this fast,” Joe says, a bit of awe in his voice. Although the new 5,000-square-foot indoor zoo offers a respectable collection of birds, mammals, amphibians, arachnids, and reptiles, along with tours, private parties, and live events, he wants to expand further with more animals and more vehicles to extend his traveling projects.
Pet store to Florida idyll to Animal Junction
Joe had unusual pets from an early age, and a blue and gold macaw named Ziggy has been part of his family since the mid-eighties. He still has his Golden Books field guides and still uses what he learned from them while volunteering at the Academy of Natural Sciences and working at the World Wide Aquarium and Pet Store in Northeast Philly.
Even as a 1989 Philadelphia Police Academy graduate and city police officer, his predilection for unusual creatures was noted and tapped. “Whenever we got animal calls, especially a reptile call, I was the first one they contacted.” It was not uncommon for criminals to hide drugs in cages with venomous snakes, so all caged snakes were suspect. Joe was one of the few on the force who knew the difference between “safe” and “sorry.”
Despite enjoying his Philly police work, in 1992, Joe followed his heart and moved to Florida, where he joined the Fort Lauderdale police force. In his free time there in the balmy warmth, he built a private collection of exotic creatures and beautiful tropical plants, including orchids and palm trees from around the world. He also built his reputation among regulators, importers, and scientists, receiving certifications and respect for his knowledge and methods.
“But I became very homesick,” he explains. “Something was missing. So I came home and joined the Falls Township Police Department in 1998.” Even in his police work there, he’d run out on the occasional animal call to round-up a reptile or collect a $2,000 cockatoo from a tree.
At the same time, Joe was developing a wild-animal business that allowed him to maintain a small collection of specialized animals, cared for lovingly at his home as part of his family. Through his company, Animal Junction, Joe provided educational and entertaining programs to schools, camps, and birthday parties. This was his opportunity to introduce people—young and old—to the creatures they read about in books, saw on television nature shows, or observed at a distance through glass walls or barricades at city zoos. Kids loved it; they and the adults learned about the critters’ lifestyles, protecting wildlife habitats, the ills of poaching, and more. The knowledge he’d gained in Florida allowed him to meet the stringent certification requirements and to exceed the standards for owning exotic species here in Pennsylvania.
Aiming dream-ward with Jack Hanna
Forward to March of 2006: a spinal crush injury had led to retirement from the force; Joe was still knee-deep in exotic animals at home—and Jack Hanna was coming to town!
Hanna, Director Emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and possibly the most widely recognized wild animal “edu-tainer” in the country, was living Joe’s dream.
“I couldn’t pass up seeing Jack Hanna!” Joe recalls. “And there he was, very accommodating and professional. A year later, his office called to ask if I’d be interested in us working together. What a proud moment!”
The two soon became very close. They still spend many weeks of the year doing animal shows and television appearances, including David Letterman and Good Morning America. When Joe realized his dream of a facility here in Bucks, Hanna sponsored the Bucks County Zoo for accreditation with the Zoological Society of America.
In March 2008, just two years after they had met, Hanna was an honored guest at the Bucks County Zoo’s grand opening. “Jack’s very inspiring, very positive and makes you feel you’re doing something good.”
Joe also travels the world with another inspiring colleague, wildlife expert Clyde Peeling, Director of Reptiland in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. He and Peeling have toured in Africa, the Galapagos, and Indonesia, and more trips are on the horizon.
Zookeeper and wildlife educator
The Bucks County Zoo & Conservation Society, located at 1540-D Campus Drive, Warminster, is staffed mostly by volunteers. Most of these volunteers are students from Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, which has respected Animal Biotechnology & Conservation and Animal Science majors. “We’re so lucky to be so close to the school,” says Joe. “And they love coming to work for us. They get something that’s hard to find anywhere else.”
Besides rigorously cleaning the facility itself, the staff and students bathe, groom, feed, and do “enrichment”—playtime—with the animals. “Birds are a great example, because they’re highly intelligent. Take a piece of fruit; put it inside a paper towel roll. Or put worms in an empty yogurt container so they have to figure out how to get to the food. Play keeps animals from getting bored. Boredom leads to stress, and that leads to disease and other problems.” There’s a lesson for all of us: play more to stay healthy.
“When I go out to do shows, I still get goose bumps from the excitement,” says Joe.
He tries to purchase animals as babies at six to eight weeks of age so they can be hand-fed in order to develop bonding with the handler. Bonding helps ensure that the handler won’t endanger the animal, himself, or the audience—an important consideration for exotic animals that go out in public for education and outreach programs.
But that doesn’t guarantee the cockatoo won’t poop on Joe’s shoulder on television or that the toad won’t pee down the front of his pants at a birthday party. In fact, exotic animals doing what comes naturally is part of the fun. Just ask any six-year-old at that birthday party.
Conservation is key
At the core of Joe’s work, however, is the message that all wild animals deserve protection of their lives and their habitats.
In the works for a Spring 2011 opening at colleges, theaters, and universities is Jungle Joe’s Wildlife Adventures, an interactive stage show that is also planned as a series of television episodes. The eco-adventures spotlight fifteen of the most popular exotic animals from the zoo’s roster of birds, mammals, amphibians, arachnids, and reptiles, each with a story to tell about climate, habitat, conservation, and the environment.
The Bucks County Zoo, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, also wants to grow. An accredited zoo, it will be able to get approvals and permits for more animals in different classes once it has available space. Plans are afoot to build a new, larger facility in Bucks.
Joe Fortunato is well named: he is fortunate, indeed, to have had two fulfilling and meaningful careers—wild animals and law enforcement. Also fortunate are the residents of and visitors to Bucks County—as well as all those who get to view his live and broadcast animal adventure shows around the country—that Jungle Joe kept his dream alive.
For more on the Bucks County Zoo & Conservation Society
and Jungle Joe’s Wildlife Adventures: 215.394.5873
JungleJoe@BucksCountyZoo.org • www.buckscountyzoo.org
1540-D Campus Drive, Warminster, PA 18974
Story by Anne Biggs