How much poorer would the world be without its zoos? Until we had the clever idea to house animals from all over the globe in one place, only the most intrepid hunters and explorers had any hope of seeing a wolf, a tiger, and a scarlet macaw in one lifetime, let alone an afternoon. Not since Noah’s day had so many creatures been available for viewing all at once — and even then the sight was only available to a very select few.
Bismarck’s own Dakota Zoo has come a long way since its humble start on the farm where Marc and Betty Christianson liked to show their menagerie of exotic animals. Now celebrating its 58th season in operation, it spans an entire 90 acres in Sertoma Park where it houses more than 600 animals comprising 125 species. Sixteen of them are endangered, and represent a great facet of the zoo’s conservation efforts.
Impressive beasts live at Dakota Zoo. There are brother and sister grizzly bears, rescued as cubs from Montana in 2012, who like to wrestle, dig for digging’s sake, and thoroughly destroy anything they can lay their frying pan sized mitts on. Although tigers are typically solitary, the zoo’s two are sisters and thus willing to tolerate one another to the greatest extent that tigers are able. Watching them chuff around their pens is exhilarating — they are the biggest cat in the world. You may see other felines like the mountain lion, bobcat, lynx, Pallas’s cat, and even a rare breeding pair of elusive snow leopards. The Mexican wolves are kept separate from the big cats, as the zookeepers are certain they wouldn’t enjoy each other’s company.
The Dakota Zoo is home to plenty of creatures plenty of other creatures as well. Their otter exhibit is wonderful, as its glass is set up to let you watch the nimble mustelid pirouette underwater. They have the Bactrian camel (with two humps, like the letter B), which unlike the Dromedary is game to weather our hellacious winters. The zoo’s new primate center houses springy spider monkeys, lanky siamang gibbons, and red ruffed lemurs which have snoots like dachshunds. Seven of the zoo’s endangered species alone reside in the primate center, where the only thing that faces any danger at all is fresh fruit.
Children especially enjoy the traditional farmyard area, where they can pat passive donkeys and miniature horses. The goats in particular like to be petted, and are known to mob tykes in the hope of begging snacks from the feeders, which allows visitors to feed the farmyard animals and support the zoo at the same time. The highland cattle add their shaggy essence to the experience, and chickens cluck and claw around. Unreasonably ambitious children may ask if they can move on to pat the tigers, but the zookeepers do not advise this because the tigers are on a special diet.
The Dakota Zoo keeps a full calendar of upcoming events, so there is always something new to enjoy there. On certain days you may have breakfast at the zoo before it opens, and in the late summer they will host special beer and wine tastings. If you would like to go on safari but wouldn’t care to fly so far then you will enjoy the Zoo Snooze, where you may set up a tent right alongside the animals’ enclosures and spend the night there. Kids of all ages and even adults can participate in educational summer programs as well.
The zoo has got meeting rooms for birthdays and pavilions for greater gatherings, as well as narrated train rides for more leisurely tours of the grounds. Ice cream, that necessity for any Midwestern summer outing, is present in full force at the zoo, as is fare from the other concession stands. Their well-supplied gift shop will take care of the little boy who demands to take home a monkey — he will barely feel the sting of compromise with a stuffed one.
In addition to entertaining their guests, the Dakota Zoo stands for conservation. For over five decades the zoo has run a rehabilitation facility for raptors, and has saved countless eagles, owls, kestrels, falcons, and hawks from maladies ranging from fishing line entanglement to unfortunate run-ins with car windshields. Furthermore, many of the many rarer aforementioned animals (not the goats) are part of the zoo’s own conservation campaigns, and the offspring reared by their breeding pairs serve to bolster the numbers of wild populations. For example, the Dakota Zoo has played a part in the restoration of the Badlands’ native black-footed ferret population. While there were very nearly only one dozen of the cute little bounders remaining back in the 1980s, the work of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and zoos like Bismarck’s has raised their number up to several hundred.
A part of every admission and membership fee they collect goes toward supporting the Dakota Zoo’s considerable conservation efforts both locally and abroad. A membership at the zoo means that you may not only partner with them on their mission in some small way, but also enjoy several benefits including unlimited entry throughout the year, free or discounted admission at over 180 zoos and aquariums throughout the continent, and an invitation to the annual member’s picnic. To learn more about everything that the Dakota Zoo has got to offer, please visit dakotazoo.org. When you do go to the zoo, please, give the good goats plenty of pats and treats.
By David Scheller