Minot’s Roosevelt Park Zoo ready to reopen doors

After nearly two years and almost every kind of obstacle one can imagine, Roosevelt Park Zoo will reopen its gates to the public Saturday, May 4.

“It’s been 101 little battles,” said the zoo’s director, Dave Merritt. “This has been a pretty devastating spring, in terms of preparation.” Late snowfall, consistently unseasonable, cold nights, and various delays in renovation have nagged the zoo’s recovery.

“We’ve been running on the edge,” he said. “As we speak today, we’re still waiting for a lot of electricity in the buildings.” He cited still-frozen ground as the largest difficulty, as it makes laying cable an arduous process.

However, he added, “We still have contractors diligently working.” One contractor, Central Trenching Inc., Minot, even Wednesday before warmer temperatures arrived, had a crew on site running cable and thawing earth.

Merritt explained that primates can’t come out until night-time temperatures are at least in the 40s. Their nest boxes are equipped for electric heat. “But with no electricity…,” said Merritt, with no need to elaborate.

Similarly, the giraffe are about ready for transport, just waiting for the weather to warm up into the 50s or higher. Along with the zebra, they should return by May 20.

Around the week of May 13, the “big cats” should

return, ready for exhibition in the middle of June when the camels return. Over the course of the summer, the llama, bongo, deer and eight more sika than before will return to the zoo, the latter of which Merritt feels will be more dynamic than previous exhibits. There also will be some new primates.

“Ringtail lemurs. Youngsters,” Merritt said. “That lemur exhibit will be a whole lot cooler than it used to be.”

Except for the camels, once each specimen returns it must undergo 30 days under quarantine for the health and safety of other animals, the staff and the community.

“We’ll be sure to make a big event out of every animal that returns,” said Staci Skeldum, the Greater Minot Zoological Society’s education coordinator at the zoo. An updated listing of the zoo’s animals and their current whereabouts can be found at (www.rpzoo.com/animals.html).

As with all large-scale projects, priorities have to be set.

“We’re not going to fix up the penguin and otter exhibits until the end of summer,” said Merritt, explaining that the complexity of their habitats and the fact that both species are conveniently lodged at the moment factor into that decision. Likewise, the zoo education building will have to wait its turn for renovation and possibly a new purpose.

Merritt has some ambitious plans for the zoo over the next decade, promising that it is “always going to be changing.” New features expected in the coming year include an electric train that will ferry visitors around the grounds and “zoo radio,” an educational announcement system that can also pipe in light music.

“More than likely there’s going to be some construction in the zoo through the summer,” Merritt said.

The horticulture, too, is a concern.

“I’m anxious to see how the grass will look,” Merritt said. Seeded last year as part of the flood recovery, an unfavorably long winter may have killed the park’s burgeoning lawn. One of the more immediate concerns is the post-thaw cleanup, which Merritt believes will require a number of volunteers armed with rakes to collect and bag the soggy leaves, dirt and wintry detritus that accumulates every year.

“We’ll take volunteers,” Merritt added in hope that locals will want to do a bit of raking. He said the zoo is asking people to schedule ahead so staff can be on hand and organize and prioritize the work. Interested volunteers can call the zoo office during regular weekday hours at 857-4166.

Still, Merritt believes progress has been “better than I expected,” especially with a number of animal transports made during January and February, a pair of particularly tricky months for such activity. He is most grateful to staff and contractors, who have made a tremendous effort in making the reopening possible.

“We’ve made what I’ve felt was really good progress. We’ll have the vast majority of animals back in one-and-a-half, two months,” he said.

A number of animals are already making themselves at home, such as the zoo’s warthogs.

“They’re back, they’re good, fun and active,” Merritt said. The north side of the zoo is pretty well populated with various livestock, a quartet of peacocks, reindeer, bobcats and the trio of wolves. The zoo acquired two of the wolves last November, and they have acclimated to each other quite well.

“Our wolf group is more active than any other group I’ve seen in captivity,” Merritt said.

The Discovery Barn’s facelift is nearly complete, expected to be finally ready in the week following the zoo’s reopening.

“It’s going to be really nice,” Merritt said, noting there will be 40 or 50 animals “if you count every nose.” For the first time, the structure will house live exhibits, featuring an aviary, reptile and amphibian tanks and a room for the zoo’s program animals.

In addition to the return of its scattered species, Roosevelt Park Zoo is looking forward to its upcoming zoo camp program, which will feature educational activities for four different age groupings of youths.

“It’s a very popular program,” Skeldum said. Information can be found at (www.rpzoo.com/education.html), or on the zoo’s Facebook page.

There will also be the Roots & Shoots program, put on by the Jane Goodall Institute for teens 13-18. It gives teenagers the opportunity to volunteer at the zoo, learn to support animals and get hands-on experience. Orientations for that program will be held Monday and on May 9 at 4:30 p.m. at the zoo.

Due to the initially limited selection, the zoo will offer admission at half price for the first few weeks, until May 24.

Despite harboring worries that certain features of their facilities won’t be available until after the grand reopening, Merritt said, “Our end conclusion was that people are so excited for the zoo opening that we can’t deprive them of that.”

His invitation is a simple one: “Come and enjoy the zoo. Your zoo.”