I recently arranged a big family outing at an arboretum. Like a busy general I prepared our exact line of attack: first around the heron pond, then up through the orchid patch to double back at the shade trees, and finally to the Japanese garden.

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Unfortunately I had overestimated my troops, who represented three generations of complications. They included a frenetic little toddler, her extremely pregnant aunt, and her grandfather and all of his foot pain.

I learned the hard way that keeping everyone happy and comfortable is key to a great family outing. That is why I should have taken the gang to Dakota Zoo. Bismarck’s own zoo has had nice little trains to ride around on since the Kennedy administration, and this year has unveiled their most state of the art trains to date. Grandma can’t pinch her nose in protest of smelly exhaust because there isn’t any, and mother can rest assured the enclosed plexiglass seating pods will turn strangers’ breath away from her rug rats. 

“The lady Pallas cat has just had her first litter of kittens this year, giving you a rare chance to see the sentient fluffballs bumbling around just like they would in the wild!”

The train treats you to every sight of North Dakota’s finest menagerie that you could ever wish to enjoy. First stop: prairie dog town. The excavator squirrels might treat you to a round of raucous chirping if they’re feeling extra territorial that day. They have become bold, thinking themselves invincible for living next door to hawks and golden eagles for so long without incident.

More American critters come next. It seems funny, recommending methods to keep raccoons away in one part of this magazine and recommending that you go and see them in another. That is the duality of raccoons. Here are also the lynx, the bobcat, the mountain lion, and red foxes in perpetual search of field mice. You will have to explain to very young children why they can’t pet the cute doggies. “Those doggies are actually wolves, and they do not play nice with little kids.” The fairy tales they grew up with should be reason enough why.

Now you can see more exotic beasts from the comfort of the train. My personal favorite is the Pallas cat. You might mistake it for a couch tabby if not for the Pallas cat’s round pupils, which give it a wonderful, frank expression. The lady Pallas cat has just had her first litter of kittens this year, giving you a rare chance to see the sentient fluffballs bumbling around just like they would in the wild!

There is the Bengal tiger. “What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” Nearby is the serval, a curious kitty with long legs that must suit it especially well for mousing in tall grass. Across the way lumber great grizzlies, which your son might point out would win in the battle royale that would follow if Dakota Zoo ever unlocked all their enclosures.

More brilliant animals ahead. Have you seen the coati, a lemur-like rapscallion with a dog’s snoot? The macaw, a fast lesson in primary colors and frugivory? The ravenous pine marten, the miniature Muntjac, and the pocket-sized wallaby?

Dakota Zoo devotes a great part of their land to majestic hoofed things. You’ve surely seen at least a painting of a whitetail if you have ever visited a hunter’s home, but they move around a lot more in the flesh. There are pronghorn and bighorn, mule deer and reindeer, the Bactrian camel with two humps, not one, and the unpronounceable Przewalski’s horse.

Off the train you’ll find the monkeys that bounce around like they have springs in their hips, and naturally ice cream and pretzels. Any visit to the zoo must end with a bang at the farmyard. There is no gentler looking creature than the Highland, a cow blessed with the coat of a golden retriever, and it is always relaxing to watch the pig in his favorite state of languor. 

Dakota Zoo is currently in full swing, and also taking every available precaution to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Some of the animals which may be susceptible to people’s diseases are being kept in their own private quarters, and certain areas including the playground are sterilized several times daily. How happy a thing that a health crisis can’t take our zoo from us!

Dakota Zoo has all their special summer events lined up as well. On August 15th you may enjoy Breakfast at the Zoo, provided you do not tempt the llamas with tantalizing slices of buttered toast. August 20th brings Brew at the Zoo, when you are again asked not to tempt the llamas with delicious beer. The llamas must follow a diet that is good for llamas.

There is too much to see and do at Dakota Zoo to fit in all an entire magazine. To plan your visit and enjoy Bismarck’s greatest family outing, please visit dakotazoo.org.


by David Scheller

Photos by Rich Barrios-Dakota Zoo