Zoo looks to future following major improvements

June 4, 2018

This paid piece is sponsored by the Great Plains Zoo.

“Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my.”

That’s not just a line from one of the most well-known movies of all time — it’s the real-life progress story of the Great Plains Zoo.

But a little more than a decade ago, progress wasn’t what the zoo was known for.

In late 2005, crumbling infrastructure, deferred maintenance, financial problems and other controversies left the zoo near closure.

“The zoo was in a tough spot. The city of Sioux Falls and the zoo’s board of directors had to make some bold decisions to turn around the Great Plains Zoo, starting with the hiring of new leadership,” said De Knudson, a Sioux Falls City Council member in 2005 and, later, a zoo board member.

In 2006 and 2007, the zoo’s new leadership team worked to build a strategic master plan, guided by facility planning and strong business forecasting. The plan was approved in 2007 by the zoo board and City Council with input from the community. Since that time, the zoo has moved briskly on a number of improvements – critical exhibits totaling $14 million in all.

Now, the Great Plains Zoo is a national award-winning zoo. It is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, putting it in the top 10 percent of animal institutions in the country. Its scope and level of excellence has expanded dramatically, and its leadership team has increased the zoo’s attendance and revenue since then by 240 percent. And it all began with a plan.

First up was a new Asian Cat exhibit in 2008, now giving guests broad, panoramic views of Amur tigers, snow leopards and Pallas’ cats.

The following year, the former Children’s Zoo was transformed into the colorful Hy-Vee Face-to-Face Farm. Nine years later, the exhibit remains a draw for children eager to feed a fistful of food to a pygmy goat or get an up-close look at a baby alpaca.

The zoo’s new strategic plan continued to unfold with the opening of the Rare Rhinos of Africa exhibit in 2010, one of the best rhino breeding facilities in the country.

“The new rhino exhibit was a game changer for us in the quality level of educational elements and our ability to engage kids in fun, hands-on ways,” said Elizabeth Whealy, the zoo’s president and CEO. “And equally important, it took our zoo to a much higher level of animal care and conservation breeding for this critically important species.”

The new exhibit not only includes year-round viewing for visitors, it is equipped with adaptable birthing suites, in-floor heat and padded flooring. These are important amenities for the zoo, now a key player in the breeding of Eastern Black Rhinos.

In 2013, the zoo opened Monkeys, Magic and More, a project that transformed the front of the zoo, adding a fountain, gathering plaza and transparent gateway.  The improvement made for better guest processing and additional education spaces – and it gave the zoo a much-needed makeover for “front-door” aesthetics. Most exciting was the addition of the Snow Monkey exhibit, making the Great Plains Zoo one of only 14 zoos in the United States to care for Japanese Macaques.

“Snow monkeys are a very complicated species to manage, but we wanted to take on this challenge that would give our visitors up-close experiences with this high-charisma animal,” Whealy said.

The hard work paid off. In 2015, the zoo won the Top Honors in Exhibit Design Award from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

“Winning an exhibit design award for the Snow Monkey exhibit was a milestone moment when we looked back and reflected on all that was accomplished in just one decade,” Whealy said.

Now, three years later, the zoo is just weeks away from opening the most recent project – the new Fortress of the Bears. The exhibit will be home to four rambunctious brown bear cubs. Their new “digs” – pun intended – include a meadow, underwater viewing and “dig boxes” filled with treats — all meant to enrich their lives under human care. The exhibit also will include a training demonstration window where guests can learn how zookeepers work with their animals to help them shift or present themselves for medical checkups.

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Although the opening of the Fortress of the Bears exhibit will be a significant milestone for the zoo, the new exhibit is sharing the limelight with the next project – lions.

Last month, the zoo formally announced its plan to bring African lions back to the zoo. It has been decades since the Great Plains Zoo cared for lions, although many residents in central Sioux Falls can still remember hearing the roars from their homes.

The lion exhibit will not only provide enhanced viewing and amenities for guests with a pride of up to 10 lions, including cubs, but also help expand the zoo’s conservation efforts. The zoo has embarked on a $5 million capital campaign for the project, including a $1.41 million Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce Community Appeals drive happening now through July 31.

Whealy said new exhibits such as the Fortress of the Bears and the lion habitat are crucial to keeping visitors coming back to the zoo. In 2017, the zoo welcomed more than 301,000 visitors – a record and almost 2.5 times the zoo’s attendance in 2005.

“We want to seize every opportunity to bring families closer to animals and the natural world,” Whealy said. “New exhibits and learning opportunities not only benefit Sioux Falls kids, they also attract visitors from other states.”

The zoo’s strategy for developing new visitor “wows,” including a coveted four-month koala loan from San Diego Zoo Global last summer, helped the zoo generate almost $38 million in economic impact in 2017.

“The zoo’s swift transformation did not happen by accident,” said Knudson, now a co-chair of the capital campaign for the lion habitat. “Intentional and diligent planning and the commitment of the zoo and the Sioux Falls community have brought us to this point. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”

Zoo looks to future following major improvements

A little more than a decade ago, the Great Plains Zoo wasn’t in great shape. Here’s a look at how far it has come.

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