SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Only a few years ago, the Great Plains Zoo and Delbridge Museum faced crumbling infrastructure, financial hardship and low attendance.
But city and zoo officials say that today, it’s a whole new world at the zoo.
The zoo has doubled its number of animals and visitors since 2005, with slightly less than a quarter million in attendance last year.
Official attendance numbers won’t be available until the end of the year, but zoo officials project a 15 percent increase over last year.
“I think today, Sioux Falls has a zoo that we can all be really proud of,” said Elizabeth Whealy, zoo president and CEO.
The zoo’s turnaround is reflected in its growing number of animals involved in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan, a breeding program that grows and sustains endangered species.
Siamang gibbons, Grevy’s zebras, Amur tigers and eastern black rhinos all have reproduced at the zoo in recent years. The most recent such birth was of two rare red panda cubs.
With the addition of snow monkeys later this year, the Great Plains Zoo will house 18 endangered species that participate in the program.
“It’s fabulous that they have 18 and they’ve made such a commitment to housing and caring for endangered species,” said Kris Vehrs, AZA executive director.
Sioux Falls houses several species that are considered highly endangered, including black rhinos and Amur tigers, Vehrs said.
“The fact that a zoo this size is committing to these highly endangered species, it’s phenomenal,” she said. “For a city of the size of Sioux Falls, the citizens should be really proud of the Great Plains Zoo.”
Through the AZA, the zoo also has 33 species involved in the population management plan, which helps maintain populations of animals at risk but not endangered. Earlier this month, a male reticulated giraffe calf was born as a part of that program.
Animals born at the zoo don’t necessarily stay there. Once they’ve grown, they might go to other zoos to start their own families to ensure the best breeding matches, Whealy said.
“Zoos now need to be the Noah’s Ark for many of these animals,” she said. “If not for zoos, many of these animals are slated for extinction.”
In 2005, the relationship between the city, which owns the land for the zoo, and the nonprofit board that manages the zoo, had worn thin. Both parties were about to walk away, which would have put the zoo under city management and its future in doubt.
Vernon Brown, who left the city council in May, and zoological board member Sabrina Meierhenry worked to repair that relationship. The zoo has been on the right track since then and has a bright future, Brown said.
“It was a pretty depressing place. The quality of the zoo in terms of the structure and how the property was even cared for was in a really sad place,” Brown said. “It all came down to leadership, and Elizabeth has changed that remarkably.”
The zoo’s annual operating budget is $3.2 million, and last year received $1.53 million from the city.
Though much has changed at the zoo, officials continually look for ways to improve. A master planning process has laid out several upgrades and additions through 2016.
The zoo is in the midst of a $4.2 million project which will, in its first phase, add a new snow monkey exhibit, ticketing entrance and greeting plaza on the outside portion of the zoo. The idea is to give the zoo more “curb appeal,” getting guests excited about the zoo from the minute they drive up, Whealy said.
The second phase will focus on renovating the museum space to include more education spaces and technology updates and areas for guest and member services. The collection of 150 mounted animals, which have long been a part of museum history, will remain, Whealy said.
“We want people to not have to wait in line. We want them to start their experience or adventure right away when they get to the zoo,” Whealy said. “This project really allows us to conduct our business in a much better way, in a more streamlined way.”
About half of the project cost is coming from fundraising and private donations.
Future improvements will include the reintroduction of lions to the zoo as part of a new exhibit, and development of a children’s zoo, which will feature interactive activities and ever-changing exhibits.
“This truly is a community zoo,” Whealy said. “We have lots and lots of community partners from individuals to corporations to foundations, who help us build a really good zoo for Sioux Falls.”
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com