The Dakota Zoo in Bismarck opened its gates for the first time on this date in 1961.
The attraction originally began has a private business, and then a labor of love, on a 67 acre plot of land on what was then the north edge of the city. Marc and Betty Christianson operated the Christianson Farm, where they kept boarding kennels for domesticated animals like cats, dogs and horses. At a certain point, they also raised mink.
Friends and neighbors knew of the Christiansons’ love of animals and, over time, people began bringing injured animals and strays to the farm, because they knew Marc and Betty would know how to give them the care they needed.
As the number and variety of animals increased, the Christianson Farm starting drawing curious visitors. And then more 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 the possibility of starting a zoo in the community. In 1958, 780 people signed a petition to establish the Dakota Zoo, and Marc Christianson took a proposal to the Bismarck Park Board.
Christianson’s concept was of a zoo that would be self-supporting and would require no funding from the City of Bismarck. The late George Schaumberg, who was the director of Bismarck Parks and Recreation, got behind the idea, and the Park Board ended up setting aside 88 acres in Sertoma Park for establishing 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 and helped.
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 fee of 10 cents.
In 1987, the Bismarck Tribune called for the Dakota Zoo to come up with a plan to expand and improve the attraction, and the zoo’s board accepted the challenge. They developed a plan, and in 1988 they began raising money. The name of the capital campaign was a play on words from a song from Disney’s Jungle Book called “Bear Necessities” – in the case of the Dakota Zoo, it was Beyond the Bear Necessities.
It was the zoo’s first attempt at raising a large sum of money, but they successfully raised $1.2 million for a new Bear Habitat, a River Otter exhibit, a canine exhibit, and several other small animal exhibits. A second major campaign began in late 1996; it was called Discovery 2000 - Turning Dollars Into Senses and raised money to continue major improvements and also to construct new exhibit spaces for Mountain Goats, Moose, Mountain Lions, Bobcats, Lynx and to establish the Discovery Zoo.
Marc Christianson’s 1958 plan worked; the zoo remains self-supporting, and an average of 110,000 people, per year, visit the grounds to view 125 different species of birds and animals.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm