Great Plains Zoo opens Fortress of the Bears on Saturday

June 22, 2018

Four brown bear cubs will make their debut Saturday at the Great Plains Zoo as part of the new Fortress of the Bears exhibit.

The $2.7 million project includes enhanced viewing and educational opportunities for the zoo’s 300,000 visitors, including a pond for the bears to swim, a meadow habitat and dig boxes on the Grizzly Hill.

“Over the last decade, our zoo has moved briskly on a number of improvements, ranging from needed habitat renovations to the creation of a national award-winning exhibit,” said Jeff Hugunin, past chair of board of directors for the Zoological Society of Sioux Falls. “The zoo likes to think aggressively and reach high. I believe the Fortress of the Bears may even have topped the snow monkey exhibit.”

In 2015, the snow monkey exhibit won the top honors in exhibit design from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Zoo looks to future following major improvements

“When our guests come to the new Fortress of the Bears, they’ll be able to experience the land where the densest concentration of brown bears is found – southeast Alaska,” said Elizabeth Whealy, the zoo’s president and CEO. “In addition to Alaskan art and cool totem poles and other elements, they will see zookeeper training demonstrations with the bears, be able to get up close and understand these amazing animals while they play in their pond or roam the meadow habitat.”

The new exhibit also includes a training demonstration window that will allow adults and children to see some of the important training zookeepers do.

Visitors will learn that brown bears used to roam across the western half of North America, including South Dakota, but through human interaction, overhunting and habitat loss, humans have pushed brown bears into only 5 percent of their natural range with the densest concentration found in southeast Alaska.

The exhibit gives visitors a sense of the Alaskan rainforest and rich food supply, with photo opportunities including a totem pole, giant bear statue and gateway arch.

A new field research station allows children to pretend to be a park ranger in Alaska while overlooking the exhibit’s Grizzly Hill area. Kids also can use a new playground and dig for treasures in a box similar to what the bears use to dig for treats.

“This new exhibit is going to be significant in terms of the work that our staff do. We’ve added more living spaces for the animals that are more spacious and more areas for our veterinary staff to provide care in, so they can work with the animals without having to move them around to the veterinary hospital. That is a huge move forward for our care,” Whealy said.

“People will enjoy seeing how we care for our bears, and they will be able to view on-site how we train our animals. At our training demonstration area, visitors can see how we get a bear to participate in his own medical care.”

All the bears have been rescued. Juneau and Sitka, both 3 years old, were orphaned near Yellowstone National Park in 2015 after their mother died. The zoo collaborated with government officials and other AZA-accredited zoos to provide top-notch care for the animals until they arrived at the Great Plains Zoo.

Kodiak and Katmai, both 1 year olds, also were rescued after their mother died in the summer of 2017 in Cold Bay, Alaska.

The grand opening for Fortress of the Bears is at 1 p.m. Saturday. It will include zookeeper chats, photo opportunities, face painting and a bear-theme reading program. The first 500 children will receive a free Fortress of the Bears backpack, and guests can build their own bear-themed treat mix while supplies last.

The zoo is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.

Designing a home for bears? Prepare for unique research

Great Plains Zoo opens Fortress of the Bears on Saturday

Four brown bear cubs will make their debut Saturday at the Great Plains Zoo as part of the new Fortress of the Bears exhibit.

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