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Next Summer, Minnesota Zoo Will Put Africa Back in Its Spotlight

August 7, 2008

By Maricella Miranda, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

Aug. 7–An African savanna that drew thousands to the Minnesota Zoo in 2006 is returning.

Giraffes, zebras, wildebeests and ostriches will graze the grasslands of Apple Valley for a second time next summer at the temporary “Summer on the Savanna” exhibit, zoo director Lee Ehmke said. And, for the first time, antelope will join the herd.

Zoo leaders hope the three-month exhibit will attract even more attention this time, with the zoo’s new $24 million Russia’s Grizzly Coast next door.

“Our guests have been asking since we opened to see big animals, especially zebras and giraffes,” Ehmke said. “We are listening to what our guests are asking for.”

The zoo expects the savanna to return June through August of next year.

In 2006, the African animals helped stop a 10-year attendance decline at the zoo.

Attendance was up 9 percent that summer compared to the year before. The exhibit’s total revenue from admissions, giraffe food for public feeding, concessions and gifts more than paid for the $400,000 it cost to add the savanna.

It’ll cost $100,000 less to bring it back because the infrastructure is already in place.

The anticipated revenue will more than make up the costs, zoo officials said. Some of the earnings will go toward conservation efforts to protect African species and habitat.

The African and Russian exhibits, as well as the upgraded Minnesota Trail displaying animals native to the state, all come at a time when the 30-year-old zoo is seeking

tens of millions in state dollars to add a splashy new main entrance and other upgrades.

Zoo leaders hope to raise the institution’s profile.

“We think the combination of the two attractions will help with our attendance and help keep the public eye on the zoo,” Ehmke said.

As before, the new animals will coexist in a 6-acre habitat on the Northern Trail, which will replicate the grasslands of east Africa. The zoo staff will create the landscape by revamping the camel exhibit and moving those animals to another space.

“It’s a perfect temporary savanna,” Ehmke said.

During the animals’ last visit, the giraffes became instant favorites as they grazed on treetops and nibbled crackers from visitors’ hands — a behavior that came as a surprise to zookeepers because giraffes typically are afraid of change, Ehmke said.

“They had no issues with coming down and getting fresh leaves and crackers from our guests,” he said. “We’re … hoping they do that again next summer.”

When the giraffes returned to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colo., they didn’t get along with the other giraffes. The Minnesota Zoo bought the animals and loaned them to the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wis., which built a space for them.

In return, the giraffes can visit the Minnesota Zoo anytime.

It’s common for zoos to share animals, said Tony Fisher, Minnesota Zoo collections manager.

The zoo will borrow the ostriches from a Wisconsin farm and the other animals from a Texas game ranch, Ehmke said.

A different species of zebra will be on exhibit than were in 2006, and gazelles will be missing from next year’s exhibit.

For the first time, gemsbok antelopes, which were once mistaken for unicorns, will be added. The animals failed the zoo’s medical tests in 2006.

“We try to go with a compatible mix,” Fisher said. “Each species fulfills a role … so that no one looks at each other as competition out there.”

Zoo biologists chose hoofed animals because they could live well together, and zoo staff had experience working with other hoofstock. Zoo leaders say there will be no elephants or lions because of the cost and risk of bringing them in is too great.

The Como Park Zoo and Conservatory houses several African animals, such as giraffes, zebras and lions, year-round in indoor and outdoor areas. One of the major costs of warm-climate animals is building winter shelters for them, said zoo director Mike Hahm.

“The capital costs would be a primary consideration,” he said. But for now, Hahm said, the variety of animals at the Minnesota and Como Park zoos complement each other.

Adding a permanent African exhibit to the Minnesota Zoo is ultimately the goal. But to do that would require a major project and millions of dollars in funding, Ehmke said.

“There’s a group of 5-year-olds that want to see giraffes that aren’t going to wait 10 years to do that,” he said. “If anyone hasn’t experienced a foot-long giraffe tongue coming to grab a cracker from your hand, you’re missing out.”

Maricella Miranda can be reached at 651-228-5421.

Meet The Giraffes

The “Summer on the Savanna” African exhibit will return next year to the Minnesota Zoo. Those interested in meeting the zoo’s two giraffes early can take a road trip with the zoo Sept. 27-28 to the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wis. Cost is $199 per person, or $30 per child if sharing a room with an adult. Details at mnzoo.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

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