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This Week Live: Grizzly Coast


New multi-million dollar exhibit set to open June 7 featuring animals and habitat of the Russian Far East

Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Zoo

by Jeff Achen

Minnesota Zoo Director Lee Ehmke meandered through the nearly completed exhibit pointing out nuances of design that complement the larger, more impressive architectural highlights.

Clearly excited by the prospect of the opening weekend June 7, Ehmke deserves to be elated. It’s been his dream to build an exhibit that features the unique and little recognized part of the world of Russia’s Grizzly Coast.

Over the course of his impressive career, Ehmke has designed and managed construction of numerous award-winning exhibits, including the Congo Gorilla Forest, the Bronx Zoo’s signature exhibit, which opened to international acclaim in 1999.

Now, another of his visions is coming to fruition, and it’s not just limited to Russia’s Grizzly Coast. The new exhibit, envisioned by Ehmke and designed by The Portico Group of Seattle, Wash., is part of the larger goal Ehmke shares with the Minnesota Zoo Foundation of making the Minnesota Zoo one of America’s top 10 zoos. (Download Lee Ehmke’s bio here. [PDF])

“There are more than 200 accredited zoos and aquariums in North America, and while no formal ranking system exists, there are a number of institutions that are widely acknowledged as the gold standard of the profession,” Ehmke said.

A $30 million capital project, which includes a family-friendly, $5 million renovation of the zoo’s central plaza and the construction of the $24 million Russia’s Grizzly Coast exhibit should boost its standing. The new exhibit is the first of its kind to replicate Russia’s far East region, landscape, and animal combinations. Taking up 3.5 acres, it’s also the largest project to open at the zoo since Discovery Bay in 1997.

The exhibit continues the Minnesota Zoo’s tradition of immersed exhibits, taking visitors on a journey into the habitats of the animals on exhibit.

Zoo guests will be able to dip below the waterline to watch sea otters at play, dodge drift wood, crawl through lava tubes that cut through the coastline, and snuggle up next to a Grizzly bear in a cave.

There’s a wall of thick glass separating the guests from the animals, of course, but it’s as close as anyone would ever want to get.

“We’re taking Minnesotans and moving them right along the 45th parallel to the coastline of Asia where Russia and China meet,” Ehmke said. “So we want you to suspend your sense of disbelief for a little bit. Pretend you’re instantly transported from Minnesota to Asia and you’ll get a sense of the different habitats and different animals as you go along the way.”

Russia’s Grizzly Coast will take guests on an exploration of three main areas of the Russian Far East: the Pacific coast, the volcanic North, and the forested South.

Starting along the coast, guests will experience sea otters playing in the water among dramatic rock formations.

Next is the volcanic land of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, second only Yellowstone National Park in terms of geothermal activity. Geysers release, mud-pots bubble and churn, and lava tubes provide a dramatic backdrop for massive Grizzly bears.

The journey continues to a place that is reminiscent of the forests of Minnesota. Heavily wooded, the southern tip of Russia is home to wild boars and two of the world’s largest and most endangered cats: the Amur leopard and the Amur tiger.

The exhibition then connects with the zoo’s Northern Trail featuring additional animals from northern biomes like the Asian steppe, tundra, and taiga.

Event center
Another feature that maybe be less visible to the general public is a new educational and meeting facility integrated into the new exhibit.

The new state-of-the-art, environmentally-friendly education event center will provide a dynamic and elegant space for education programs, meetings, and events.

It will be the Zoo’s first truly “green” building, utilizing many sustainable design strategies and operational principles to reduce energy use and minimize environmental impact.

“All the best practices of environmental building are exemplified here,” Ehmke said of the rental facility.

Log cabin
Russia’s Grizzly Coast will also feature a wealth of information about the animals and their habitat. Highlighting this aspect of the exhibit is an authentic, hand-crafted traditional Russian log home near the end of the exhibit.

The “Ecolab Conservation Science Cabin” was built in the Republic of Karelia, Russia, by Ladoga Log Homes. It served as a research station in the Russian Far East before it was disassembled and shipped to Minnesota via St. Petersburg by truck, by ship to Hamburg, through Montreal and on to St. Paul by train.

The cabin will serve as a stopping point for guests to learn about the geology, plant life, animals, people and landscape of the Russian Far East.

Central Plaza
The redesigned Central Plaza is a lively, colorful, and fun outdoor meeting and activity area complete with shelter and shade structures, restrooms, food, and gifts.

Sculptures of Amur leopards, brown bears, Chinese takin, moose, raccoon, and woodland caribou by artist Heath Satowwill greet zoo guests as part of the central plaza.

As the hub of the zoo’s outdoor exhibits, Central Plaza will feature a splash pad with life-sized animal sculptures and artistic trees. Guests can also enjoy a taste of Russia in the Grizzly Coast Cafe, which features ethnic dishes plus other zoo favorites, all in a new indoor café with a large covered seating area.

Beautifully terraced gardens will be the setting of a multi-use stage adjacent to the Zoo’s Main Lake, offering music, animal demonstrations, and other programs.

Grizzly bears
Grizzly bears Sadie, Haines, and Kenai are the stars of the new exhibit.

Sadie was found near a landfill in Kotzebue, Alaska, and rescued by the local Department of Fish and Game in June, 2006. Officials named her after Sadie Creek, near where she was orphaned, and transferred her to the AWCC. Zookeepers say Sadie is the most inquisitive of the three bears.

Haines was found in July, 2006 and is nearly the same age as Sadie. This orphan received his name after he was found roaming the porches and yards around the town of Haines, Alaska. Shortly after being found, he joined Sadie at the AWCC. Zookeepers say Haines is a very large bear with a calm and easy going disposition.

Kenai was found orphaned along the coast near Seward, Alaska, and joined Sadie and Haines shortly after he was found. Kenai is smaller than Haines, and enjoys joining his adopted brother in daily wrestling matches, something zoo guests are likely to see a lot of.

“They’re very active,” Minnesota Zoo Public Relations Coordinator Kelly Lessard said.

Sea otters
When guests first enter the exhibit, they’ll be greeted by four sea otters, Capers, Rocky, Jasper and Katchemak.

Three of them, Capers, Rocky, and Jasper, were found as orphans off the coast of Alaska. The fourth, Kachemak, is a mature female from Shedd Aquarium.

Capers was found alone in Kachemak Bay, Alaska, after his mother was found deceased nearby. He was transported to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward where he was cared for until he was transferred to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago that summer.

Capers arrived at the Minnesota Zoo in December 2006 with a female otter named Kachemak who is on loan from the Shedd Aquarium to provide companionship.

Jasper was rescued near Homer, Alaska. He was transported to the Alaska SeaLife Center where he was cared for around-the-clock by rehabilitation staff.

On July 31, 2007, Rocky arrived at the Alaska SeaLife Center after he was abandoned near Craig, Alaska. Jasper and Rocky were transported to the Minnesota Zoo in August 2007 where they continue to receive 24-hour care in their behind-the-scenes home including feeding, swimming, playing, grooming, and sleeping.

Wild boars
Last November, the zoo acquired a breeding pair of wild boars from a private breeder in Tennessee. The pair will be on exhibit along with their litter of eight piglets.

Boars, the ancestors of all pig species, are found around the world and are very adaptable, thriving in a variety of habitats. In the Russian Far East, they grow especially big because of the availability of large and nutritious pine nuts.

Amur leopards
The Minnesota Zoo acquired two female Amur leopards, Katya and Polina, from Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans.

The sisters were born in October 2006 and arrived in Minnesota in late November 2007. They are genetically valuable with direct links to wild leopards — their great grandparents were from Russia and North Korea.

The zoo hopes to obtain a third female leopard from the Mulhouse Zoo and Botanical Gardens in France. This leopard was born in April 2006. The Amur leopard is one of the rarest cats in the world.

Next vision
As guests scurry through the fancy new exhibit next weekend, Ehmke will have already begun focusing on his next project, the a major overhaul of the zoo’s entranceway.

A Minnesota House bill has awarded the zoo $1 million toward planning for that next step. Ehmke said the current entrance has more of a back door feel. Ehmke has said that only about a quarter of the initial master plan from the 1970s was ever built and it’s been a struggle to move ahead with that.

A new entrance would have more “curb appeal” drawing guests in through a series of new animal exhibits. But, that’s another $30 million in funding that the zoo will have to ask from the state.

For now, the Grizzly Coast should be enough to wow most visitors into agreement with Ehmke that the zoo is on its way to the top.

Check out more info on all the Grizzly Coast animals here.

Jeff Achen is at

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