The Dakota Zoo in Bismarck opened its gates for the first time on this date in 1961. The attraction grew out of a private business known as the Christianson Farm. On the north edge of the city, Marc and Betty Christianson had kennels to board domesticated animals like cats, dogs and horses. At a certain point, they also began to raise mink.
Friends and neighbors knew of the Christiansons’ love of animals, and over time people began bringing injured animals and strays to the farm, knowing Marc and Betty would give them the care they needed.
As the number and variety of animals increased, the Christianson Farm starting drawing curious visitors. Finally, it got to the point where whole busloads of school children would show up.
The Marshal Bill Show on KFYR picked up on the phenomenon, and the publicity led people to consider starting a zoo. In 1958, 780 people signed a petition to establish the Dakota Zoo, and Marc Christianson brought a proposal to the Bismarck Park Board.
Christianson’s concept was a self-supporting zoo that would require no funding from the City. George Schaumberg, the director of Bismarck Parks and Recreation, got behind the idea, and the Park Board set aside 88 acres in Sertoma Park for the attraction.
Marc Christianson and his crews used recycled and donated building materials for much of the initial construction, but certain projects came to fruition only because private citizens stepped in to help.
When the Dakota Zoo opened to the public, it had 75 animals and 23 birds on about 15 acres of developed land. In that first year alone, some 40,000 people visited, each paying an admission of 10 cents. In subsequent years, capital campaigns have allowed the zoo to expand, adding many new exhibits and a Discovery Center, which offers a hands-on learning.
Marc Christianson’s 1958 plan worked; the zoo remains self-supporting, and in a typical year can welcome well over 100,000 visitors.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm