ZOMG BEARS! And Other Animals


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 anywhere in the world. Go inside Russia's Grizzly Coast at our slideshow here.

City Pages: Russia's Grizzly Coast is such a huge project, how long did it take to create from drawing board to opening day?

Lee Ehmke: It's probably in the six-year range. We started planning the schematic design in 2002, and we broke ground about two years later. So, two years of solid, heavy construction, and a lot of design. That's probably not out of line for a project of this scale. It seems like the time just flew by, and now it's here.

CP: What details were the most difficult to get right?

Lee Ehmke LE: That's a great question, and I'm not sure that I can come up with an easy answer. I think it was 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 which 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 of all of the details. 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, and no real sense of the underpinning. Hopefully, if we've done our job right, and 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 and this new exhibit that makes it hospitable for such a wide array of animal life?


Grizzly Bear Kenai LE: I think the environment is a rich one because there are a variety of habitats. From forests that are very similar to the forests you might find here in Minnesota, to a really rich and fertile coastline with the upwelling of the Pacific current, you've got a kelp forest and the sea life that goes along with that. So it's the diversity of habitats in a relatively small area. The fact that it's on the coast means that, although it's pretty far north and very cold, it's tempered by the ocean so it doesn't get as cold as some other places like Siberia. So, you end up with an overlapping of ranges of animals you might normally think of as tropical, like the tigers and leopards that are found in southern Asia and in Africa ranging to the furthest north of their range, to the cold weather animals like the otters and the bears meeting in that same habitat. It's a unique place.

CP: Part of the exhibit is three female Amur Leopards. There are fewer than 30 of these animals in the wild. What sort of plans does the zoo have for breeding these leopards?

LE: We have three right now, and we'll be bringing in another one in the next year for our breeding program. Many of the animals in accredited zoos and the equivalent zoos in Europe are managed by a computer-based scientific program where the genetics of each individual are known. 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 that to assure long-term genetic diversity, we really need to be mixing the European group with the American group. We will be bringing in a male leopard from a European zoo to begin the program some time within the next year.

CP: Tell me a little bit about the Education Event Center, the Zoo's first green building?

Sea otters LE: That's actually something most visitors won't even be aware is there because it's tucked into the landscape. We do a lot of educational programming here at the zoo, and we're always looking to host events that help us generate revenue. For a number of reasons, we've basically hidden it from the public view. From the backside of the building, it's actually a very nice piece of architecture that you can directly come into from our parking lot. So we can have an event during the day while the zoo is open, but not have to go through the zoo to get to it, or do evening events like sleepovers for our education groups. It is a green building, and we're going to seek LEED certification on it. It uses geothermal heating and cooling to help with energy use, a planted green roof, and it uses a lot of recycled materials. As an environmental organization, we think it's important that whenever we're doing new buildings that we seek to practice what we're preaching in terms of environmental responsibility. This is a nice showpiece for us as well, that really adds value to the overall exhibit.

CP: What role do you think the Grizzly Coast will play in amplifying the Minnesota Zoo's reputation around the country?

LE: There's already a lot of interest within the zoo and conservation community about this exhibit, and I think that is going to be matched by the public interest. I think when we're measuring what makes a zoo a great zoo, it's the perception of the guests who are hopefully flocking to the zoo, but it's also within the profession. There are other measures people are looking at: the conservation work, the education work, the quality of the exhibits. I think Grizzly Coast is going to significantly elevate the perception of zoo in the eyes of both of those audiences and really be a unique offering that will separate us from run of the mill zoos, and be a really special attraction that is unique in the world. I'm not going to say we’re there yet, there is still a lot of work we still would like to do to improve the zoo and guest experience, and do more and better conservation and education work, but Grizzly Coast is a huge step in that direction.

Check out Russia's Grizzly Coast opening day on Saturday. Free with $8-$14 admission. 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. 13000 Zoo Blvd., Apple Valley; 952.431.9500.