Roosevelt Park Zoo: A gathering place for everyone

Eloise Ogden/MDN Roosevelt Park Zoo in Minot is the oldest public zoo in North Dakota.

Whether it s the playful river otters and red pandas, the stately African lion, the regal bald eagle or the swimming penguins, there’s many animals and birds for visitors to see at Minot’s Roosevelt Park Zoo.

Pathways wind through the zoo area with the Souris River also winding its way through the area.

Dating back to the early 1900s, Minot’s zoo is the oldest public zoo in North Dakota.

Despite going through two major floods in the past 48 years – the flood of 1969 and the flood of 2011 – the zoo has bounced back each time into a fully viable facility for visitors with a wide variety of zoo inhabitants plus providing special programs for the zoo experience.

Minot’s history of having a zoo dates back to April 9, 1914, when the Ward County Independent newspaper in Minot reported “Minot is to have a zoo. This will delight the youngsters and some of the older boys and girls as well.”

Eloise Ogden/MDN Increasing the visitors’ experience is a major focus for the 2017 season at Roosevelt Park Zoo, according to Becky Dewitz, zoo director.

The park board at the time decided to buy two buffalo in South Dakota, some coyotes, foxes, bears and raccoons. Plans were to also install a cage of monkeys during the summer. Park board members said the parks already had squirrels.

The first animals for the zoo arrived in February 1915, at Riverside Park. The park’s name was later changed to Roosevelt Park when a large equestrian statue of Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt was dedicated in the park on Sept. 11, 1924.

A 1927 Minot Parks souvenir book said the zoo had several families of monkeys, buffalo, elk, deer, African lions, mountain lions, kangaroos, bobcats, raccoons, lynx, coati, badgers, foxes, guinea pigs, 21 kinds of wild ducks, eagles, silver black foxes, flying squirrels, swans, alligator, pheasants, talking parrots, cockatoos and others.

The first exotic animals, a pair of Nubian lions purchased for $250, arrived between 1924 and 1930.

Darius T. Ritchey, who was parks superintendent from 1945-1971, is often credited for being largely responsible for developing a zoo in Minot.

Eloise Ogden/MDN Visitors enjoy Roosevelt Park Zoo on a summer day.

The house for felines was built in the early 1970s and financed with the help of the Greater Minot Zoological Society, a nonprofit organization created in 1970 to promote the zoo, the City of Minot and many donations. GMZS is a nonprofit organization founded in 1970 to promote the zoo. The organization’s now is known as the Zoo Crew.

A children’s zoo was opened a number of years ago within the main zoo. Reached by a walk-bridge, this area covers about a half-acre area and resembles a farmyard with a barn.

The zoo has survived near closure during the Depression and in later years when its operating money was low. It has gone through major flooding of the Souris River, most recently in 2011, when animals and birds had to be evacuated, some going to other zoos during that time.

The flood of 1969 caused every bird and animal to be moved from the zoo which led to the redesign of the zoo grounds. The foot bridge, a feline house, and a new bear den were constructed, according to zoo information.

Throughout the following years to the present, additions of new animals, new exhibits and the participation in the Species Survival Program have greatly enhanced the zoo.

Zoo births attract many visitors. A Grant zebra foal born at the zoo in August 1984 was the first zebra ever born in a North Dakota zoo. Photos of the foal and its mother were printed in newspapers across the country.

A baby kangaroo born at the zoo in 1956 also was believed to be the first kangaroo ever born in North Dakota.

The birth of tiger cubs in the 1960s parented by the zoo’s first pair of tigers initiated the zoo’s first involvement in a tiger breeding program.

There’s been some “celebrities” at the zoo over the years. Tigers purchased for the zoo performed in the Clyde Beatty, Shrine and Gil Gray circuses. The Minot Daily News reported a lion purchased for the zoo in the 1960s was the second cat in the world that could walk a tightrope.

A cougar born at the zoo in 1981 was the star performer of Bob Steele Animal Productions in Florida in promotional advertising for Lincoln-Mercury dealers. The Minot Daily News also reported the cat, named Beaux, was trained to ride a motorcycle and sit at a bar and drink from a glass. Beaux appeared on the TV show, “That’s Incredible,” in November 1983.

Two mascots of the former 5th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Minot Air Force Base lived at the zoo for a number of years. “Liberty” and “Eagle,” a brother-sister pair, were donated to the zoo when the squadron deactivated in 1983. At the air base, the cats were always known as “the mascots” or “the lynx mascots” but actually they were bobcats (Lynx rufus) and not lynx. Col. Jack Broughton, who was a 5th FIS commander, was responsible for getting the live mascots for the squadron in 1963. Both cats are no longer living.

Throughout the following years to the present, additions of new animals, new exhibits and the participation in the Species Survival Program have greatly enhanced the zoo. The zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

This past November, the Minot Rotary club held a rededication to thank community partners for the refurbishment of Soo Line steam locomotive No. 735 at its site at the zoo. The locomotive was dedicated 60 years earlier on Nov. 5, 1956.

This past winter the zoo was open on certain days unless weather did not permit it. The winter opening offered visitors a different type of zoo experience to summer. Becky Dewitz, zoo director, said some animals, like the wolves are much more active when its colder.

Increasing visitors’ experience is a major effort planned for the 2017 zoo season. Dewitz said there will be a wide variety of aspects. “We’re going to try to do more demonstrations about the animal training program and hands-on interactions with some of our animal ambassadors with our animal outreach program,” she said.