Rescued menagerie

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One of the preserve’s raccoons looks for a way out of his enclosure. One of the preserve’s raccoons looks for a way out of his enclosure. Steve Serwatka cares for (almost) all sorts of animals

DENNIS TOWNSHIP - Steve Serwatka didn’t plan to start an animal preserve. It just sort of happened. Now his home and business are filled with creatures both mundane and exotic.

More than 20 years ago, Serwatka took a snake to his son’s elementary school to educate the children and talk about protecting animals. At that time, Serwatka was a science teacher, working with students in elementary school through community college. Serwatka liked animals. He liked helping critters in need.

“I was taking care of animals in Massachusetts,” Serwatka said. “I moved here with a possum and some snakes. When I brought the snake to class, people started calling me about animals in trouble.”

Serwatka is low-key and speaks softly. He’s the kind of person who takes things - good or bad - in stride.

“I actually don’t know how the preserve got started,” he said. “People have been bringing me animals for the last 20 years. I get one thing, and somebody hears about it, and then I get another thing.”

Serwatka’s preserve, New Jersey Nature, is located in Dennis Township on Route 47, close to Cumberland County. His 170-year-old house is connected to the preserve. It’s a short walk to work each day, and the dozens of animals Serwatka cares for take note of his approach.

“I get up in the morning, and there’s a crow talking to me and a pig that’s happy to see me.” Serwatka, 52, leaned back on his porch railing. “I like it. It keeps me young.”

But there’s more than a crow and a potbelly pig named Moo on the preserve. Serwatka has alligators and pythons, turtles and a couple of large tortoises. There’s a cage with a trio of tropical birds, and nearly a dozen aquariums and terrariums line the walls of his small office.

In one tank, a young octopus blends with its background. In other tanks, fish both common and unusual swirl in a wild flashes of color and fins. Above one tank of fish, a lizard cocks its head at passersby. In the next tank, a large Eastern indigo snake waits for its next meal.

Some of the animals Serwatka cares for are well-behaved, and they have the run of Serwatka’s closed-in, one-acre preserve. Moo follows Serwatka around the preserve, begging for handouts. A rabbit, left by a passerby, follows a duck and plays with a couple of caged pygmy goats.

Further back on the property, raccoons peer from their enclosure at a red tailed hawk, a turkey vulture and a Great Horned Owl. On the other side of the preserve, a young doe nibbles at a bowl of grain, while a cantankerous beaver protects his enclosure.

“I’ve got a little bit of everything here,” Serwatka said.

Serwatka takes in nearly any kind of animal. “Anything really,” he said. “Except dogs and cats and big iguanas.”

And maybe monkeys.

“I’ve never had a primate here,” Serwatka said. “I’m not sure I’d want to. They’re smart. They can plot against you.”

But that kind of animal intelligence doesn’t stop Serwatka from taking other critters known for their wiles and knack for figuring things out. He’s got a fox, named Flower, and three raccoons that are always trying to find their way out of their cages.

The fox is new to the preserve. A family bought the fox as a pet in another state. “When the family moved to New Jersey, they didn’t realize they couldn’t have a fox as a pet.”

Serwatka said the family did the right thing. “They tried to register the fox, but gave her up when they found out it wasn’t legal.”

Many of the animals Serwatka cares for on the preserve are there because of bad decisions made by people choosing a pet. Others are there for legal reasons.

One of Serwatka’s snakes was given to him by a man convicted of a crime. “I don’t know why, but his parole officer told him he couldn’t keep the snake.”

The cage with the trio of tropical birds were given to Serwatka when an elderly woman in the township died. “They found the birds in her trailer,” he said.

But one of the most common reasons for Serwatka to receive an animal is someone’s bad choice.

“Folks can buy just about anything,” Serwatka said. “I saw baby cobras for sale at a reptile show in Pennsylvania. Some folks buy copperheads, or other venomous snakes.”

Later, when people realize that a poisonous snake doesn’t make a good pet, they drop them off with Serwatka.

Moo, the potbelly pig, found its home with Serwatka in much the same way.

“Some people were driving to the Philadelphia airport with the pig to give to their parents as a pet,” he said. Somewhere between home and the airport, the folks figured out that Moo probably wasn’t such a good gift. They detoured to the Dennis Township preserve and dropped off the pig with Serwatka. That was years ago. Now Moo follows Steve and his helpers, Chris Conroy and Allison Abramowitz, around the compound, grunting and snuffling in their footsteps.

The two alligators were also bad decisions. One of the reptiles is from Lower Township and was given to Serwatka by animal control.

“The alligator was someone’s dumb idea for a pet,” Serwatka said.

Conroy, who’s worked with Serwatka for about three years, leaned over and spoke lowly to the alligator. “Come on, boy,” he said. “What’s wrong?”

The alligator hissed and backed away. Conroy wasn’t deterred. He bent and carefully lifted the reptile from its tank. “This one is about four years old,” he said, cradling the alligator.

When the weather warms up, the alligators will be moved to a pond outside.

“Chris dug that pond by hand,” Serwatka said. It’s a large pond, about 20 feet across and 3 feet deep. Conroy grinned as he talked about chopping through roots with an axe and shovel. But digging the pond was worth it, Conroy said. The turtles have a place to hibernate. When the weather warms, the two alligators will have a place to sun themselves.

While Serwatka finds homes for many of his rescued animals, some of the critters are at the preserve for life. The great horned owl and red tailed hawk have been with Serwatka for about 15 years.

“The hawk’s got a bad wing,” he said. So does the nearby turkey vulture. It’s unlikely that the vulture will ever leave.

Serwatka said he takes in just about any kind of bird. “Where else are they going to go?”

“Every day is something different,” Abramowitz said. “I see all kinds of new stuff, and it’s cool to watch the animals get bigger.”

And the entire preserve is run almost entirely on donations.

“It’s all run on donations,” Serwatka said. “All of the fish tanks are donated.” So was the fencing that surrounds the preserve, as well as a trailer out back that houses the animals’ feed. Even the stonework built above the turtle pond was donated.

Food bills for the preserve run between $500 and $600 a month. Many of the veterinary services for the animals are provided free of charge. Yet donations don’t cover everything, and Serwatka often reaches into his own pocket to make up the difference.

“Sure, I have to take some out of my own pocket,” Serwatka said. “Running this preserve doesn’t pay. Every day, I put out something.”

But that doesn’t matter to Serwatka. “We’re happy,” he said. “The animals are happy. It’s a nice life.”

Depending upon your GPS, New Jersey Nature is located at 2353 Route 47, Dennis Township or 2353 Delsea Drive in Woodbine. If you’ve got an animal in trouble, Serwatka wants to help. Give him a call at 609-861-2886.

Chris Conroy displays one of the New Jersey Nature’s two alligators. Chris Conroy displays one of the New Jersey Nature’s two alligators. Steve Serwatka and Allison Abramowitz admire a trio of tropical birds rescued from a trailer after the birds’ owner died. Steve Serwatka and Allison Abramowitz admire a trio of tropical birds rescued from a trailer after the birds’ owner died. Moo emerges from his home to beg for treats. Moo emerges from his home to beg for treats. This red tailed hawk has a damaged wing. This red tailed hawk has a damaged wing. The great horned owl has been with Serwatka for about 15 years. The great horned owl has been with Serwatka for about 15 years. This doe found a home at the preserve last May, shortly after it was born. This doe found a home at the preserve last May, shortly after it was born. An angry beaver defends his enclosure. An angry beaver defends his enclosure.

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