Marianne Vella, the Zoo Director for the Bergen County Zoo, joined the Bergen County Department of Parks in 1985. Throughout her extensive 34 year career, she has worked her way up from part-time animal keeper to overseeing an 18-acre facility that features wildlife from North, Central, and South America.  

In honor of Parks and Recreation month, we chatted with Marianne about her experience working for #OurBergenCountyParks, the importance of conservation, and more.

Freeholder Steve Tanelli: How did you get started with the Bergen County Parks Department?

Marianne Vella: I had recently graduated from Ramapo College and like many new graduates, I started to search for job opportunities. I came across a listing for a part-time animal keeper at the Van Saun Park Zoo and applied. In my mind, it was an excellent way to gain additional real world experience. Shortly after my interview, I learned that I was being offered the position. I was ecstatic! 

As with any new position, I was initially nervous, but I learned quickly. I must have done a good enough job since after a few months, I was hired as a full-time animal keeper. Ever since then, I have been with the Bergen County Parks Department and as I tell my friends and family, I have one of the best jobs around since what can beat working with animals every single day. I absolutely love my job!

What kind of changes have you seen over the course of your 34 year career?

Throughout the years, the role of the zoo has evolved, especially in urban settings. As more species face extinction, our zoo staff and wildlife specialists have sought ways to improve the lives of our animals, improve the experience of our guests, but also push the importance of conservation. Conservation is paramount to us and we see ourselves in a position to serve as a conservation leader, especially as zoological parks throughout North America are receiving more and more visitors every year. 

Despite being small in size compared to many other zoos, the Bergen County Zoo helps support many conservation projects and organizations both locally and globally.

What are some of the local and global conservation efforts and programs that the Bergen County Zoo helps support?

On the local level, we are part of Horseshoe Crab monitoring program. At least 5 times a year, my staff and I drive down to the Jersey shore to assist with the measuring and tagging of horseshoe crabs. The project helps keep track of their whereabouts and movements within New York Harbor and assists with the understanding of the ecology and mysterious lifecycle of a 400 million year old species. It is part of a long-term research project to protect the horseshoe crab population that live in the urban-suburban waters along the East Coast of the United States. Many people are unaware that horseshoe crabs are an important food supply for migratory shoe birds, so a decrease in their numbers affects migratory birds. 

On a global scale, we have been involved with the release of a Bergen County Zoo-hatched Andean Condor Chick in Colombia, the health assessment of Wild Giant Anteaters in Brazil, the conservation initiative for the Golden-Cheeked Warbler in Honduras, the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project on the United States-Mexico border, and the creating of a Condor Conservation Corridor in Argentina.

How can someone help support the mission of the Bergen County Zoo?

As a small organization, we are always looking for community support to help our mission and to continue to serve the residents of Bergen County and everyone else who visits the Bergen County Zoo. 

For those that are interested in becoming a member of the Bergen County Zoo, there is a membership application. There are 5 different tiers of membership that all contain exclusive benefits for our members. We are truly grateful for the generous support of our sponsors, donors, members and zoo visitors and the Friends of the Bergen County Zoo who help provide us with the financial support to continue our extensive educational programs and family-friendly activities.

For those that are not interested in membership, you can sponsor an animal. The sponsorship money is used to help pay for veterinarian care, exhibit improvements, as well as the huge weekly grocery bill that many of our animals accrue due to their healthy appetite. The best part of the sponsorship program is that it gives you personal access to visit your animal at the Bergen County Zoo.

Of course not all support needs to be monetary, we are also always looking for individuals interested in volunteering their time to assist with different facets of the Bergen County Zoo as part of our Docent program.

As we wrap things up, what do you most enjoy about your role and profession?

I love that I get to work in my dream job every single day. I know that sounds cliche, but I get to wake up every single day to new challenges and learning opportunities provided by the animals in my care. It is truly never a dull or boring moment.
I also get to interact with a dedicated staff, who works hard all year long to take care of the animals and provide a great place for people to visit. It is because of them that we have been able to maintain our prestigious accreditation with The Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The past 34 years has been an honor and a privilege to work with the staff to collectively achieve our goals. We look forward to continuing the hard work and to see you at the Bergen County Zoo.
Picture of Commissioner Steve Tanelli

Commissioner Steve Tanelli

Steven A. Tanelli was elected to the Bergen County Board of Commissioners on November 6, 2012. Commissioner Tanelli served as Chairman in 2016 and 2021, Vice Chairman in 2015, and Chair Pro Tempore in 2020.

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