The Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls recently opened two new exhibits with two more openings to come in the next few weeks.
One of the openings will be the newly remodeled black bear exhibit while the other will feature a rescued bobcat.
Already, the new “Americas” exhibit, which features animals from North and South America, and Natasha the Komodo Dragon’s new exhibit have been popular with guests.
“Our zoo is going through a really exciting transition right now,” said Denise DePaolo, director of PR and engagement for the zoo, said. “And the kids just love seeing everything.”
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New Americas exhibit
The Americas exhibit is in the little green building where the Creepy Crawlers exhibit used to be. Those animals have been redistributed to other habitats in the zoo.
There are two red tail boa constrictors, which are non-venomous snakes found in tropical South America and the Caribbean, in the Americas exhibit. One will stay there full-time and the other is an educational animal, meaning it will be involved in programs like the Zoomobile for children to see, touch and learn about.
The Americas exhibit will also feature an armadillo, bats, a black and white tegu, and the zoo’s Gila monster.
“Most of these animals have lived behind the scenes for a little while now, and we’ve been waiting for this exhibit to be finished,” DePaolo said.
The exhibit is the work of zoo staff, who had a strong hand in developing the concept, choosing the animals and creating the exhibit.
Katie Cochiti, one of the zoo educators, even painted a mural for it.
“Having the exhibit be 100% from our staff makes it really special,” DePaolo said.
Komodo dragon exhibit and new bobcat
Natasha is the zoo’s 11-year-old Komodo dragon. While she’s been at the Great Plains Zoo since 2010, she never had her own exhibit until now. Her exhibit opened last Saturday.
“The weather this spring set us back on quite a few things, including having Natasha out,” DePaolo said. “Now that the temperature is better, people will be seeing a lot of her. She’s very photogenic.”
Bobby the bobcat will also soon get his own exhibit. Bobby is new to the zoo, and the 2-year-old bobcat was being illegally kept as a pet. Initially, Great Plains was looking at sending him to another zoo accredited by AZA (Association of Zoos & Aquariums), but the zookeepers here just fell in love with him, DePaolo said.
The AZA is made up of the top 10% of zoos approved by the USDA, which evaluates zoos and aquariums to a certain standard of care.
“We’re very excited to have Bobby out,” DePaolo said. “He’s just adorable, and we know everyone else will love him, too.”
Bobby’s exhibit will go in the old giant anteater exhibit and should open in a few weeks.
Black bear enclosure remodel
A ribbon cutting on July 1 will unveil the newly-remodeled $1.1 million black bear exhibit. What used to just be a simple canyon will now include a glass viewing area, new caging, an HVAC system and a custom-designed space so that the bears can better participate in their healthcare.
The design will help the zoo staff train the bears to be more cooperative for exams, which includes teaching them to open their mouths for a check-up or raising their paws for inspections.
The zoo currently has three black bears: Charles, Jenny and Marshmallow. Jenny and Marshmallow are mother and daughter, and the two were found scavenging around Grand Teton National Park and got too comfortable around humans.
All three of the bears were considered “nuisance animals” and needed a new home.
“So one thing you’ll see with zoos is that they don’t have a lot of bear cubs because we’re not trying to actively breed bears,” DePaolo said. “We mostly serve as a sanctuary for those needing to be relocated.”
COVID-19 animal vaccines and bird flu
Over the past week, 57 animals across 18 vulnerable species at the zoo received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The vaccine was developed by Zoetis, a veterinary health supply company. A TikTok video posted by the Great Plains Zoo shows animals like meerkats and singing dogs receiving their first dose.
Big cats and primates are also particularly susceptible to the virus, so Bobby the bobcat still needs his second COVID-19 vaccine before his exhibit opens.
The Great Plains Zoo continues to monitor the animals leading up to their second shot, which they will receive three weeks after their first dose, but so far there have been no adverse effects from the vaccine among the animals.
Right now, the focus is giving the vaccine to at-risk species only, and there are no plans at this time to vaccinate the rest of the animals.
Zoo-goers will also find most of the zoo’s birds are not out right now. Migratory birds are spreading the bird flu across the nation, so for the safety of all the birds in the zoo, they are not being kept in the outdoor exhibits.
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This is not much of a change for the birds, who spend the winters indoors already.
“It’s a little less than ideal, but their safety is very important to us,” DePaolo said. “Every single bird is an individual, and it’s our job to give them the best possible care.”
She mentioned that guests can still see flamingos and penguins because their exhibits are indoors.
Future exhibits, Zippity Zoo Day event
The zoo is working on building a hoop garden for butterflies and introducing the Dakota skippers, which are an endangered species of butterflies native to prairies, as part of a conservation in effort in collaboration with the Butterfly House.
They also plan to expand the African exhibit in the next few years to include lions and meerkats, and an idea for a face-to-face farm children’s area is in the works.
DePaolo said the zoo is also continually making general updates to some of the oldest buildings.
“We’re focusing on trying to give our zoo a face lift and refresh it in a way that not only meets AZA standards for our animals but exceeds them,” she said.
In the meantime, the Great Plains Zoo is having a Zippity Zoo Day event July 25 from 9 am to 5 pm that will feature face paint, bounce houses, yard games and a bubble machine.
“There’s all sorts of fun activities, and I think what people love is that when they come, they get to support all these amazing animals,” DePaolo said. “This is their home, and we want people to make great connections and learn as much as they can about the zoo.”