The Dakota Zoo was started in 1961 by Marc & Betty Christianson on 15 acres of land located on, what was then, the north edge of Bismarck. Zoo Director, Terry Lincoln states, “One of the most famous stories about how the zoo started is that a local man had a farm, and if someone had a hurt animal or hurt pet, or needed a field trip, they would go to Marc’s farm. After helping countless community friends and neighbors with hurt animals, the place started to become a local attraction. One day there were over 20 busses with school kids that wanted to come see the animals. So his wife Betty said ‘Marc, you need to start a zoo.’ And so it began.”
On June 3, 1961, the Dakota Zoo opened its gates to the public with 75 mammals and 23 birds on some 15 acres of developed land. Forty thousand visitors paid a ten cent admission fee that first year to visit the zoo.
The Dakota Zoo is unlike many nationwide zoos in the fact that it is self-supportive and operates solely on funds raised through admissions, concession sales, adopt an animal program, memberships, and donations. The zoo is supported by its visitors and community sponsors and is not tax supported. Lincoln, who has been with the zoo since 1985, says, “That brings home how important it is for community sponsors like Dakota Community Bank & Trust. It takes people stepping up and getting involved and supporting the zoo.”
“It’s a privilege to see how the zoo has grown and how it was started,” says Lincoln. Over the years, there have been big changes to the zoo with its development and growth. One of those changes involved their Zoo 2020 Campaign. Relying on community support, Dakota Community Bank & Trust (DCB&T) was one organization who stepped up to the plate to give back to the state-wide family attraction. “I can remember when we sat down with Dale (Pahlke) and we talked about this capital campaign. He was open and interested right away. To see where all the places that Dakota Community Bank & Trust is involved in the community, we were thrilled that they wanted to be a part of the zoo as well. Their willingness to jump in and support the zoo has been a great thing,” recalls Lincoln.
Originally DCB&T’s donation was initially going towards a new meerkat exhibit featuring 10 meerkats, but as the Zoo 2020 projects went out for final bid, they came back more than double than the original proposed bid. “So we said ‘how can we revamp this bid?’ It soon became apparent that we needed a different plan. What we decided to do was really centered around our donors, like Dakota Community Bank & Trust. From a practicality stand point, trains were in our future plans anyway – so all of those things came together,” asserts Lincoln. Dakota Community Bank & Trust is now sponsoring a new zoo train.
“I think that a lot of places including banks say they like to support the community. But this is actually a situation where you (DCB&T) practice what you preach and it’s obvious. I see ample evidence where the bank is involved – I see it firsthand with the commercials on TV and now with the zoo. It’s a true example of community support.”
As he reflects on his time with the zoo, Lincoln says “Seeing how people come to the zoo to have a good time – it’s our mission to educate them about the animals to instill a care and concern for the animals and conservation. The zoo, we like to think, is a place for everyone, and we see that every day. We have events that are designed for adults only like wine tasting and brew at the zoo – and then we have children’s day and other events too to have fun and learn. We want to be a place for everyone, all walks of life, to come and enjoy themselves.”
Perhaps most importantly, the zoo started a conservation fund in 2013, with 25 cents of every paying admission and a portion of every membership going towards the fund. They have been able to dedicate over $100,000 to conversation in a few short years. Lincoln proudly exclaims how it has allowed the zoo to benefit black footed ferrets, snow leopards, and all sorts of other animals. The conservation fund has also helped to put up trail cameras in Russia to keep tigers safe from poachers.
The zoo’s overall mission to instill and inspire a better understanding and appreciation for both animals and nature. As the only rehabilitation zoo in the state, it has grown from a 15 acre farm to now a 90 acre property that features more than 600 animals, 125 species, and welcomes 150,000 visitors each year. The Dakota Zoo sees visitors from all over the US. School busses in the springtime visit from eastern Montana and even South Dakota, though 80% of their visiting population is from the local region. “It truly is a regional facility. That is why we are not the Bismarck Zoo. We are the Dakota Zoo,” closes Lincoln.
For more information on the zoo including hours of operation, volunteering opportunities, memberships, and facts on the animals, visit: https://www.dakotazoo.org/.
Written by Lindsey Hefta, Marketing Director