This week the Minnesota Zoo is set to open its latest permanent exhibition, Russia's Grizzly Coast. Built to emulate the far northeastern coast of Russia, the habitat will be home to grizzly bears, rare Amur Leopards, Amur Tigers, sea otters, and boars. Zoo Director and CEO Lee Ehmke discusses the exhibit, which is the only one of its kind in in the world.
CP: What details for the habitat were the most difficult to get right?
LE: Probably creating the sense of a rocky, wave-eroded coastline in the middle of Minnesota. Representing the geothermal activities of the peninsula: We've got fumaroles that create steam, we have a geyser, we have a bubbling mud pot. All of those things are not exactly off-the-shelf items. All took some ingenuity and some real planning, followed by seamless integration. Obviously there is a lot of infrastructure involved to have an exhibit like this work, but making that not visible to the guests, to have it really feel like a walk through a natural environment with minimal perceived barriers. Hopefully it looks like it's just always been there.
CP: Some of these animals don't seem to belong together. Can you explain what it is about Russia's coast that makes it hospitable for such a wide array of animal life?
LE: That's one of the reasons we focused on this area; it's just got an amazing diversity of animal life and environments, but it's pretty much off the radar screen for most people. When you think of big, natural storehouses in nature, you think of the Amazon, the African plains, or maybe the Himalayas. But this is another big chunk of the world that has incredible wildlife, incredible scenery, and incredible tracts of wilderness. Not much attention has been paid to it, certainly not here in the West, anyway. It's also like all the other reservoirs of biodiversity in the world that are now becoming increasingly threatened by human activity. We thought it was an incredible thing to let people know about.
CP: Part of the exhibit features three female Amur Leopards. There are fewer than 30 in the wild. What sort of plans does the zoo have for breeding?
LE: We have three right now, and we'll be bringing in another one in the next year for our breeding program. We cooperate with many other zoos to make sure that we are strengthening the bloodline of this very small population to maximize genetic diversity. Typically, and with the case of the Amur Leopard, there's been a population in U.S. zoos, and a separate population in European zoos with successful breeding. But we are now working to combine the two, because both populations are so small. This kind of critical cooperative effort links zoos internationally for the good of the species. The thing that is groundbreaking for us here is that we are essentially coordinating this international effort really aimed at protecting one of the rarest animals on earth. As a genetic safety valve, it's going to be critical to keep the zoo population strong, and to grow it. It's our long-term hope to someday return leopards that have been bred in zoo situations to restored areas of their natural habitat in Russia.
Check out Russia's Grizzly Coast opening day on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sat., June 7, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., 2008