History of the Minnesota Zoo
More than 40 years ago, a vision was born for a zoo like no other—a place where guests can view exotic animals from around the world in natural habitats and a garden-like setting. After years of dreaming, discussion, planning, and construction, the Minnesota Zoological Garden, or Minnesota Zoo, opened on May 22, 1978. Called the “New Zoo” back then, it featured 1,200 animals representing 238 species. Fast forward to today, and you’ll experience a zoo that has doubled its animal collection, is the largest environmental education center in the state, and has become a worldwide leader in conservation.
A Radical Concept
In the 1960s, local conservationists began lobbying for an expansive zoo facility that would not only feature species native to Minnesota but also animals in naturalistic settings and outdoor exhibits. When Dakota County donated the Apple Valley parcel to the state in 1970, Zoo organizers had the space they needed to build the large exhibits they envisioned, including a monorail as a means of transporting visitors to the far reaches, affording them a bird’s-eye-view of the expansive outdoor exhibits. Compared with the layouts and exhibits of most North American zoos, this was a radical concept offering a very unique visitor experience—open exhibits, naturalistic settings, and glass partitions or other security barriers replacing the traditional steel bars. The Minnesota Zoo’s cutting-edge design transformed the zoo experience and many zoos have followed suit.
Making a Difference
Since the beginning, conservation has been a core value of the Minnesota Zoo. Its focus has always been on animals that are considered threatened or endangered based on the premise that zoos have a responsibility to educate, maintain, and provide information and research on rare species.
- The Minnesota Zoo is a leader in tiger conservation and is known internationally for its efforts in both in situ and ex situ tiger conservation programs in Southeast Asia.
- The Zoo’s partnership with Ujung Kulon Kambas National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia was the first Adopt-a-Park of its kind and has spurred other zoos to form similar partnerships.
- The Zoo works locally, nationally and internationally on recovery and reintroduction projects: trumpeter swan restoration in Midwest, Asian Wild Horse recovery in Mongolia, Bluebird recovery in Minnesota.
Managing Captive Populations
Taking the lead in conservation means the Minnesota Zoo not only supports the preservation of animals in their natural habitats, it also carefully manages the birds, beasts, and fish within its own collection. Modern zoos are in some cases the last line of defense for species that are threatened or have already vanished from the earth.
The Minnesota Zoo participates in more than 60 Species Survival Plans (SSP) of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), an ongoing effort to manage and breed zoo animals that may face extinction in the wild. The Zoo also has a long history and strong partnership with two internationally known conservation programs—the International Species Information System, a program that provides animal records keeping software and database services to zoos around the world, and the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, a branch of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Changing How You See the World
From the beginning, the Minnesota Zoo has changed people’s perceptions of what a zoo can be. More than 36 million guests have walked through the gates into a world of exotic and rare animals, award winning exhibits, nationally recognized education programs, and leading conservation efforts. The Minnesota Zoo will continue to provide unique exhibits of animals with enriched lives while offering guests closer and more engaging encounters with nature. It will continue its mission—to connect people, animals, and the natural world.
1960s - 1970s
- In the 1960s, local conservationists began lobbying for an expansive zoo facility that would not only feature species native to Minnesota but also animals in naturalistic settings and outdoor exhibits.
- The initial thought was to enlarge Como Zoo in Saint Paul, but a 1966 study indicated there was not enough room to expand it into a major facility.
- Legislation passed in 1969 creating the Minnesota Zoological Board.
- Dakota County donated a 500-acre parcel of land in Apple Valley to the State of Minnesota in 1970.
- Construction for the “new zoo” began in 1974.
- Governor Wendell Anderson kicked off the Opening Ceremonies on May 22, 1978.
- A popular exhibit included two beluga whales: “Big Mouth” and “Little Girl.”
- In 1979, the first litter of Amur tigers cubs was born. A signature species, the Minnesota Zoo has been instrumental in tiger conservation programs worldwide.
- The Monorail opened in 1979 giving guests a birds-eye-view of hardy, northern hemisphere animals.
- The Minnesota Zoo’s official name is Minnesota Zoological Garden. This name was chosen to imply a place where guests can view living animals in a garden-like setting.
- In 1980, Steve Martin’s World of Birds Show opened. A popular attraction, the show features a variety of birds from around the world demonstrating free-flight natural behaviors.
- In 1980, the first Asian wild horse was born at the Zoo. This species was brought back from the brink of extinction in the wild by a zoo-managed captive breeding and reintroductions program. Today, wild herds sired by a Minnesota Zoo stallion thrive on the open plains of Mongolia.
- Governor Al Quie opens the Zoo’s cross-country ski trails in 1980.
- In 1980, the first Bali mynah chick was born at the Minnesota Zoo. There are fewer than 10 in the wild and commercial logging continues to threaten their future. The Zoo has successfully bred this rare species helping to bolster the captive population.
- In 1981, the Minnesota Zoo was featured on the cover of the December Smithsonian Magazine. The article paid tribute to the Zoo’s innovative design of wildlife in nature-imitating settings, in a year-round experience.
- The pronghorn exhibit opened on the Northern Trail in 1981. Native to North America, this small hoofed animal is fast—reaching speeds of up to 55 miles per hour!
- In 1982, Ulysses S. Seal started the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Tiger Species Survival Plan (SSP) at the Minnesota Zoo. The SSP program manages captive breeding for endangered tigers.
- Red panda exhibit opened in 1982. In the wild, the red panda is nearly extinct in large parts of their territory due to human encroachment and the unusual biology of bamboo, the main diet staple.
- The Minnesota Zoo presented a temporary wallaby exhibit in the summer of 1984.
- The prairie dog exhibit opened in 1983.
- In 1985, the first Zoo-bred trumpeter swans were released into the wild as part of a breeding and reintroduction program. Once missing from the Midwest landscape, the Zoo, in partnership with Minnesota DNR, has released hundreds of swans to restore wild populations.
- The first common loon was hatched in captivity at the Minnesota Zoo in 1985.
- The first North American river otter was born in 1986.
- Family Circle magazine named the Minnesota Zoo as one of the best zoos in the country in 1987.
- The Minnesota Zoo birthday party program began in 1988.
- The first annual Beastly Ball black-tie fundraiser was held on October 29, 1988.
- The Zoo opened a koala exhibit in 1989 to huge crowds.
- In 1990, the Minnesota Zoo “adopted” the last refuge of the endangered Javan rhino, Ujung Kulon National Park in Java, Indonesia. This adopt-a-park program, the first of its kind, spurred many other zoos to take similar approaches to in situ conservation projects throughout the world.
- In 1991, the Coral Reef exhibit opened providing guests with a unique floor-to-ceiling view of marine species from the South Pacific.
- In 1992, first Atlantic bottlenose dolphin calf was born at the Minnesota Zoo.
- The Zoo opened a Malayan sun bear exhibit in 1992. It is the smallest bear species and considered endangered.
- In 1992, a Sichuan takin exhibit opened on the Northern Trail. This species is considered a National Treasure by the Chinese government.
- The Weesner Family Amphitheater opened in 1992 with generous support from Donald Weesner.
- In 1993, the Medtronic Foundation started the mentor program. This ongoing education program provides inner-city youth the chance to experience and consider science-based careers at the Zoo.
- The first Amur leopard cubs are born at the Minnesota Zoo. This subspecies of leopard is one of the most endangered on earth with fewer than 30 remaining in the wild.
- The Zoo wins the Association of Zoos and Aquariums prestigious Bean Award for its long-term conservation and propagation program for tigers.
- The School for Environmental Education (SES) opened in 1995. Located at the Minnesota Zoo, this optional high school allows students to focus on science-related curriculum.
- In 1995, the Zoo opened a summer butterfly exhibit allowing guests to walk through a fluttering kaleidoscope of color.
- In 1996, Minnesota Zoo volunteers celebrated over one million hours of service!
- The Discovery Bay: UnitedHealthcare Marine Education Center opened in 1997. In this spectacular exhibit, over 1.1 million gallons of water provide a home for sharks, rays, dolphins, and other marine life.
- The Minnesota Zoo’s Amur tiger “Globus” appeared on the cover of National Geographic Magazine, in February 1997.
- The first “Walk the Wild Lights” was held in 1997. This much-loved tradition dazzled guests with a festival of lights.
- In 1997, the Imation IMAX Theatre opened.
- The Minnesota Zoo opened a Komodo monitor exhibit in 1995. These large lizards are considered endangered and are part of a Species Survival Plan.
- In 1998, the Minnesota Zoo presented FROGS!
- In 1998, the Minnesota Zoo received the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Top Conservation Award for the Sumatran Tiger Project in Way Kambas National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia.
- In 1999, the first Sichuan takin calf was born at the Minnesota Zoo. Related to mountain goats, this endangered species is considered a National Treasure by the Chinese government.
- The Wells Fargo Family Farm opened in 2000. This exhibit provides guests with a look into a working family farm, and demonstrates that farmers have a responsibility to provide agricultural products and to protect natural resources. It won the AZA top exhibit award in 2001.
- Conservation Director Dr. Ron Tilson and writer Greg Breining traveled to China in 2000 and 2001 assisting field biologists in censusing the wild South China tiger population, the most endangered of all tigers.
- In 2001, Meerkats of the Kalahari opened, replicating the arid desert of southern Africa. This popular exhibit gives guests a great look at these bug-chomping, dirt-digging, playful little critters.
- The Tiger Lair exhibit opened in 2002. In this exciting exhibit, guests get a “whisker close” look at tigers while learning about tiger conservation.
- The Zoo celebrated its 25th birthday in 2003.
- Seven endangered Mexican gray wolf pups were born in spring 2003, the first litter born at the Minnesota Zoo. These wolves are genetically very valuable and may make excellent candidates for reintroduction into the wild.
- In 2004, Lemurs: Ghosts of Madagascar opened along with wonderful renovations to the Zoo’s Tropics Trail. The new exhibit provides guests a look at this diverse island featuring ring-tailed and red ruffed lemurs.
- Female Amur tiger cubs were born in 2004. These endangered cubs have important genetic value with links to wild tigers on both sides of their family tree.
- In 2004, two different litters of fishing cat kittens were born. These very rare cats mark an important achievement for captive breeding of this species in zoos.
- The Creatures Beneath the Canopy exhibit opened in 2005. Featuring species from South America, the exhibit includes golden lion and cotton-top tamarins, agouti, three-banded armadillo, two-toed sloth, and green aracaris.
- In 2005, the Minnesota Zoo was awarded the AZA International Conservation Award for partnership in the Sumatran Tiger Conservation Program.
- In 2005, the Minnesota Zoo welcomed the birth of a Japanese macaque for the first time since 1991.
- The groundbreaking of a new multi-million dollar exhibit, Russia’s Grizzly Coast, was June 22, 2006.
- The Minnesota Zoo presented Africa: Summer on the Savanna in 2006. This temporary multi-species exhibit featured giraffes, zebras, gazelles, wildebeest, and ostrich.
- After a year-long renovation, the Zoo opened a “new” Minnesota Trail in July 2007. The trail provides a wonderful nature walk through more than 15 amazing wildlife exhibits such as gray wolves, coyotes, river otters, and raccoons.
- In February of 2007, the Minnesota Zoo’s volunteer program celebrated two million hours of service to the Zoo.
- The Zoo launched WolfQuest an interactive 3D wildlife simulation game in December 2007. Developed by the Minnesota Zoo and eduweb, with funding by the National Science Foundation, players take on the role of a wolf living in Yellowstone National Park.
- In June, 2008 Russia’s Grizzly Coast opened, a spectacular, $24 million exhibit, featuring bears, sea otters, wild boars, and Amur leopards. This is the first exhibit of its kind representing the region, landscapes, and amazing animals of the Russian Far East.
- Spring 2009 Africa Exhibit returns
- First “Dreamnight” event at the Zoo June 5, 2009.
- Russia’s Grizzly Coast received top honors in the exhibit design and marketing excellence categories from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), 2009.
- Ned Dayton received the Zoo’s second annual Stewardship Award at the fifth annual Director’s Dinner.
- Fiscal year 2009 attendance record set with more than 1.35 million guests
- July, 2009 Woodland Adventure, an interactive, nature-based play area opens opens
- 2010, Baby black rhino born in Namibia named “Sota”. Minnesota Zoo and the Nature Conservancy partnered to fund rhino conservation efforts.
- “Faces of the African Forest” exhibit opened Memorial Day weekend 2010.
- Second “Dreamnight” event at the Zoo June 4, 2010
- Groundbreaking for “Heart of the Zoo” Phase I took place June 21, 2010
- Female bottle-nosed baby dolphin born July 17, 2010
- Fiscal year 2010 attendance was the 2nd best attendance record in Zoo history.