To many, North Dakota is a land of wide-open expanses and home to a smattering of prairie dogs, deer and antelope. Seldom do people consider this state to be home to wild, exotic animals. North Dakota's four zoos house secret, wild kingdoms waiting for the curious and the adventurous to discover their animal sanctuaries.
Each of the four zoos has its own personality, a reflection of the animals it houses and the creativity of the zoo directors. The Dakota Zoo in Bismarck, with its park-like atmosphere, tree-lined walkways and large exhibit areas, is in stark contrast to the newly formed Red River Zoo in Fargo. Roosevelt Zoo in Minot has a unique setting straddling two sides of the Souris River, while the Chahinkapa Zoo in Wahpeton incorporates a new protective dike into its wild kingdom landscape after surviving a 100-year flood.
Red River Zoo
The Red River Zoo, the youngest and smallest zoo (only eight acres with room to expand to 33 acres), boasts some rare animals. One highlight is an exhibit of white-lipped deer from Northern Asia. The deer, which few people are familiar with, are quite rare in domestic settings and bring credibility to the young zoo. When director Geoff Hall and curator Gary Stende were starting from scratch, they designed the zoo to their own specifications and incorporated exhibits and animals they felt would work well in North Dakota.
Hall says, "It took a lot of vision to try to say that this (land) was going to be a zoo. It was a lot of fun to really highlight animals that adapt to the cold here in North Dakota. We started working on a collection based on climate, conservation, endangerment and breeding programs as well as diversity of wildlife. We try to show the comparison and contrast between North American and Northern Asia animals."
Hall came to Fargo after giving up his job at the Baltimore Zoo. The enticement of having creative license to build a zoo from scratch was too much for this Concordia College graduate.
All zoos depend upon one another for building or trading animals. Early on Hall was able to establish a good repoire with one of the premier zoos in North America, the San Diego Zoo. Through the relationship fostered with San Diego personnel, Hall has been able to acquire animals unique to this area of the nation, such as meerkats (made famous by Timon in the movie The Lion King), wild boars and Chinese red pandas.
But building collections of animals requires money. In the mid-90s a tax to support the zoo was turned down by Fargo residents, forcing the zoo to depend solely on donations. In fact, only the Roosevelt Zoo in Minot is tax-supported, which means additional challenges for the other three zoos to creatively raise money to fund projects and improvements.
The oldest zoo in North Dakota, Minot's Roosevelt Zoo, was started in 1924 along the banks of the Souris River. The zoo encompasses 19 acres with a diverse international animal population that includes Kodiak bears, giraffes, zebras, tigers and penguins.
This variety of wildlife is exhibited among tall trees and flowered walkways bordering the Souris River. A mini-farmyard housing domestic animals is an enjoyable stop for young children wanting to pet animals. One of the more popular animals at the Roosevelt Zoo is the penguin. It's so popular, in fact, the zoo has plans to add more penguins to their exhibit. Young and old alike enjoy watching the frolicking, playful birds in the water diving and dancing with ease.
The zoo began as a drive-through zoo with all animals housed in one building; however, the flood of 1969 changed everything. The disaster forced the zoo to begin much-needed renovations, which continued for the next 10 years. Now, according to director Ron Merritt, "The zoo has more exotic animals. In 1990 we added the giraffes, which helped to establish the African collection."
Merritt, whose passion is working with animals and the public, enjoys his role as director of the zoo. He sees the zoo as an opportunity to reach out to visitors and locals and to educate them about the variety of animals in the world and the delicateness of our ecosystem.
The second oldest zoo in North Dakota is found along the Red River in Wahpeton. The Chahinkapa Zoo was established in 1933 and spans 18 acres. Although it is not a tax-supported zoo, it does receive some help from the city of Wahpeton in the form of free water, land and supplemental monies from the park district.
Taking pride in overcoming the flood of 1997 and not losing any animals, zoo director Kathy Diekman speaks candidly of the challenges of incorporating a levy through the middle of her operation. "The construction of the levy bulldozed 75 percent of our exhibits. It displaced so much that we weren't sure how we were going to get some of our big hoof stock back. I'm happy to say that the levy has successfully been incorporated into our landscaping and we were allowed to build some shelters on the other side of the dike. We have our elk, bison, alpacas, llamas and camels over there. We are able to use the wet side of the dike and we're really pleased to have saved that land."
Although the zoo itself was ravaged by the floodwaters, the animals and a restored, working carousal were spared the devastation. With the help of other zoo directors around the state, Diekman successfully saved all her animals and relocated them until the floodwaters receded. The appearance of the zoo has changed some since many of the trees were cut down due to the flooding, but the additions and alterations have made the zoo a better place.
One of the highlights that many of the numerous visitors, about 60,000 per year, enjoy is the fishpond and petting zoo. The tranquil fishpond setting, offering benches for respite, gives visitors a welcome break from the stress of everyday living.
Chahinkapa Zoo, whose mission is education, conservation and recreation, also offers viewers a variety of native wildlife. Two-thirds of their animal collection is domestic while one-third is exotic. Diekman says, "We'll probably always stay with that ratio because we think it is important for people to learn about the native animals around them."
Another zoo that focuses primarily on North American animals is the Dakota Zoo in Bismarck. The zoo, started in 1961, encounters the same funding challenges as its counterpart in Fargo. It receives no tax support or city help and funds itself through donations, memberships, admissions and concession sales. Despite the lack of tax support, the zoo continues to grow and expand. Presently the zoo has the largest acreage, 50 acres, of North Dakota zoos with plans to expand to 60-65 acres within the next five years.
Zoo Director Terry Lincoln explained the need for added space. "We had mountain lions and bobcats in rather small exhibits...10-by-30-foot cages. That's what they were used to. Now they are in a 150-by-300-foot exhibit complete with trees, grass and ponds. It's like night and day, the behavior of these animals. They are so active. Before they kind of just sat around on their perches waiting for feeding time. Now we've just seen so much play behavior."
Another hallmark of the zoo is the addition of the Bismarck Tribune Discovery Center, a beautiful wooden structure resembling a log cabin. This newest attraction features an aquarium of native fish, a milking parlor, an anthill and other hands-on exhibits for the public to enjoy.
With 125 different species and 600 total animals, Bismarck's Dakota Zoo has the largest animal population as well. One of the main attractions for young children is the prairie dog exhibit where children can pop up in the midst of the colony in an enclosed Plexiglas bubble to view the animals at close range. The spacious grounds and animal cages force the viewer to become a detective at times to find the elusive animal amidst the foliage of a more natural habitat. Visitors are able to get close to a variety of exhibits by viewing the animals through glass enclosures.
The profusion of trees and overgrowth along the walkways and in the exhibits adds to the serene atmosphere of the Dakota Zoo.
North Dakota's zoos, each with its own personality and animal specialty, offer a thrilling zoological experience. The approachability of the directors and their desire to educate the public about animals of all kinds adds to the positive experience that visiting a zoo can be.
Hidden within the boundaries of North Dakota are four wild treasures waiting to be explored. Go ahead. Seek out a zoo and discover the hidden treasures of these wild kingdoms.
Red River Zoo, Fargo
- May 1 - Sept. 3 - 10 a.m. - 8 p.m.
- Sept. 3 - Oct. 15 - 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
- Closed Oct. 15 to May 1
- 2-12 - $2
- 13 and older - $4
- Seniors 60 and up - $2
- Just southwest of I-29 and I-94 interchange
Dakota Zoo, Bismarck
- April 22 - Sept. 30 - 10 a.m. - 8 p.m.
- Fri., Sat., Sun. Oct. to April - 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
- Under 2 - Free
- Ages 2-12 - $2
- Ages 13 and older - $4.50
- Sertoma Park, Riverside Park Road
Roosevelt Zoo, Minot
- May - Aug. - 10 a.m. - 8 p.m.
- Sept. 1-30 - 10 a.m. - 7 p.m.
- 5 and under - Free
- 6-12 - $2
- 13 and older - $4
- 1219 Burdick Expressway East
Chahinkapa Zoo, Wahpeton
- May - Sept. - 10 a.m. - 8 p.m.
- 5 and under - Free
- 6-12 - $2
- 13 and older - $4
- Off 2nd Ave. in Wahpeton. Follow signs to get to zoo, 1004 R. J. Hughes Dr.