Behind The Scenes At The Great Plains Zoo

Jul 19, 2013

The Great Plains Zoo has been a part of Sioux Falls for 50 years and it's still evolving.  There's a brand new snow monkey exhibit, a transformed children’s zoo with wandering flamingos and more changes in the works.   SDPB’s Kathleen Serie takes us on a visit of the most recent additions and gives us a sneak peak of what's coming in this Dakota Digest.

The distinct sound of peacocks rings throughout the grounds of the Great Plains Zoo. These animals, along with geese and ducks, roam around during the day; greeting guests and taking quality strolls with the kids.

   “And so I always just tell the kids- today walking on the paths with you are going to be ducks and geese and peacocks and they just think that is so cool that there’s animals walking around with them that are not in cages- they get so excited. And then they’ll come back and tell you how many peacocks they took a walk with or how many geese they took a walk with,” says Zoo Volunteer Debbie Pederson.   

Animals are allowed to roam at the Great Plains Zoo
Credit Kathleen Serie
Pederson spends about five hours a week at the zoo.  

The Great Plains Zoo has grown over the last 50 years, currently boasting a collection of 1,000 animals, including 18 endangered species.

  About a quarter of a million guests are expected to visit the zoo this year, which is almost double the attendance of seven years ago. President Elizabeth Whealy credits exotic animals and new exhibits for the increase in interest.


Snow Monkey sunning on a rock
Credit Kathleen Serie

“I think right now snow monkeys are really capturing people’s attention. It’s a brand-new exhibit- it also just includes very charismatic animals- and they’re so interesting because they live in a very strict hierarchy- so where they perch and who they chase really tells you a lot about what they’re trying to accomplish in terms of stature,” says Whealy. 

The snow monkeys laze on giant boulders. They climb an occasional tree and pick each other's hair. Kids press their faces and hands against the glass of the indoor viewing area, chattering excitedly about what they’re seeing.

  The Great Plains Zoo is one of only 13 in the country that houses snow monkeys. Whealy says this troop of 10 primates is perfect for South Dakota’s cold winter climate, because they come from the mountains of Japan. Whealy says these monkeys love being and playing in the snow.  

The snow monkey exhibit is flanked by a renovated plaza- complete with a new ticketing entrance- plenty of open space- and a new gift shop.   

As we stroll through the plaza we pass the new outdoor home for a flock of 25 bright pink Chilean Flamingos. Some are perched on one leg while others are dipping into the small pond for a drink of water. Nearby, is the Asian Cat Exhibit with tigers and leopards.

Across the zoo's 45-acre campus, is a small barn full of farm animals like chirping chicks, fluffy sheep and talkative goats. The children’s farm gives young ones an up-close experience with animals, and Whealy says this interaction is crucial.

  “They can get up close to animals- feeding them-petting them- getting to know these farm animals. I think that’s really important because when a lot of us grown-ups were kids we actually had cousins or other people that had farms. And now kids don’t get up-close to animals other than through zoos. So zoos are incredibly important,” says Whealy.  

Toward the back of the grounds is the Rare Rhinos of Africa exhibit. The addition includes an indoor day room for the animals- as well as numerous hands-on exhibits where guests can test their sense of smell against a rhino’s- and even hear how they sound in the wild by turning a hand-crank.   

All of these new improvements and additions are part of the zoo’s strategic master plan. Next on the list is a new lion habitat.   Leigh Spencer is the Education Services Manager at the Great Plains Zoo. She and her team are responsible for the care and training of about 26 species they use in their presentations to educate children. These animals include everything from turtles and lizards to a chinchilla and a couple of parrots.

  “I love my job. In the education department I have the opportunity to inspire the next generation to care about and conserve all the amazing animals we have at the zoo,” says Spencer. “It’s just a really amazing experience to see a kid’s eyes light up when they get to meet one of our education animals in person for the first time or when they discover something new about an animal that they love.”   

The zoo has full-time employees, but  Zoo President Elizabeth Whealy says the volunteers give about 15,000 hours of time to the zoo each year. This team can be seen throughout the ground feeding animals and washing out the monkey exhibits.

   “The fact that we have a beautiful zoo just sort of indicates the very well-rounded series of attractions that we have here in Sioux Falls. But it’s more than that- it’s more than just a recreation day at the zoo with your child. It’s really important that kids get up close to nature and up close to animals. And so having all sorts of educational programming at the zoo- in addition to just the opportunity to wander around and see a thousand amazing animals- this is important for your kid’s development,” says Whealy.   

Whealy says just other attractions- zoos need to provide something new to draw guests in. She says Great Plains is always adding new activities- educational programs- and exhibits to keep people engaged. She says once they get to the zoo- they’re reminded of how cool the animals are.