LACEY — Partnered with the Associated Humane Societies, the Popcorn Park Animal Refuge provides a closer look at creatures with unique histories than even the most devout animal lovers might not be accustomed to.

Director John Bergmann has been with the zoo since its inception and traces his own history back before the opening of the current Forked River location in 1977.

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He said what makes Popcorn Park stand out is that its staff takes in animals that other facilities can't care for anymore due to age, illness, or other factors, such as a group of "big cats" who came from Alabama in 2016.

One lion, Simba, was severely underweight and plagued by parasites, but the animal refuge nursed him slowly and steadily back to health.

Such stories, Bergmann said, are what keep people coming back to Popcorn Park.

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There's as much of a hands-on element as you can get, too, and of course the refuge's name plays a role.

"There are feeding chutes for some of our hoofstock, our goats and our sheep, where it's a chute that goes right down and you can put your popcorn or grains in there," Bergmann said. "So you do get a lot closer to the animals here."

The zoo did have to close between March and June of last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic but is now back open with social distancing and mask-wearing protocols.

Meanwhile, the AHS dog and cat shelter saw increased activity from locals wanting to adopt a quarantine pet. Bergmann said staffers couldn't adopt those animals out fast enough.

The park and the shelter work hand-in-hand, he said, with an overriding focus on animal education.

"People do ask sometimes, what do you want people to come away from here with when they come here?" Bergmann said. "I've always thought that if they leave here with more compassion for animals than they came in with, we've achieved our goal."

Meet (some of ) the animals of Popcorn Park Refuge in Forked River