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The Dakota Zoo got its start on the farm of Marc and Betty Christianson, which was located on the northern edge of Bismarck. What started as a boarding kennel for dogs gradually expanded to include a variety of domestic animals. People in the neighborhood regarded the farm as a safe haven for animals, so they brought stray and injured animals to the farm knowing they would be cared for.

Locals began to visit to view the animals. Students came on school field trips. Each year the number of visitors grew, eventually leading the Christiansons to the idea of turning the farm into a zoo. After 780 people signed a petition supporting the idea, the Christiansons presented their case to the Bismarck Park Board, assuring the Board that they were not seeking any funding from the city. In 1958, George Schaumberg, the director of the Parks and Recreation Department, offered eighty-eight acres in Sertoma Park.

The Dakota Zoo was a labor of love. The Christiansons used donated building materials and relied on the support of volunteers for labor and donations. The zoo opened its gates for the first time on June 3, 1961. The workers had developed fifteen acres of land housing seventy-five mammals and twenty-three birds. It was a wild success. Forty thousand people visited during the first year. And on this date in 1962, Bismarck residents were reminded that Dakota Zoo would open for its second season in the coming week.

The zoo continued to develop, and in 1987, the zoo's board created a long-term plan. It served as a roadmap to the future. In 1989 the zoo’s first major fundraising campaign raised over one million dollars. This resulted in the construction of habitats for bear, river otters, canines, and small animals. Another fundraiser in 1996 allowed for new exhibits for moose, mountain goats, mountain lions, bobcats, and lynx. The 2005 effort raised almost two million dollars for the big cat complex and the primate center.

The Dakota Zoo supports itself through admissions, concession sales, memberships, and donations. It is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. From its modest beginnings on a family farm, the zoo has grown into a popular destination, attracting over 100,000 visitors every year.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Bismarck Historical Society. “It Happened in Bismarck.” Accessed 4/7/2022.

Dakota Zoo. “About Dakota Zoo.” Accessed 4/7/22.

Family Days Out. “The Dakota Zoo.” Accessed 4/7/2022.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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