Wildlife zoos fear going extinct with delayed season openers

Safari North Wildlife Park co-owner Kevin Vogel said he is “extremely concerned” about the delays regarding opening this season.

Park owner Kevin Vogel feeds the park's giraffes, Jigsaw and Puzzles, Thursday, April 30, at Safari North Wildlife Park on Highway 371 south of Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Kevin Vogel and Marnita Van Hoecke work with wild animals, but the local zoo operators aren’t afraid of much of anything except a lack of attendance.

Both the co-owner of Safari North Wildlife Park in Brainerd and the director of Pine Grove Zoo in Little Falls, respectively, worry Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s recent extension of his stay-at-home order until May 18 will be bad for business.

“I am disappointed by the governor extending the stay-at-home order … but also I want to make sure everybody is safe and healthy,” Vogel said.

GALLERY: Safari North Wildlife Park
Safari North Wildlife Park was slated to open May 9, but now plans to open May 18 because of the governor’s social distancing measures. Pine Grove Zoo also plans to open for the season the same day. Both regional attractions bring tourism dollars into the area and local economies.

“Our plan was to open May 4 … and it does affect our bottom line, obviously, but more importantly to us is making sure that the public is safe and our staff is safe along with our animals, so we will continue to follow his recommendations,” Van Hoecke said of Walz’s latest order.


Vogel added, “It's affected us, so far, in a big way because we lost all of our school groups for the month of May, so we lost thousands of kids that would be coming out to us for their field trips that are no longer coming out … so it’s going to hurt us bad in that way.”

Pine Grove Zoo

Pine Grove Zoo in Morrison County features about a hundred animals, including zebras, kangaroos, otters, porcupines, black bears, Siberian tigers, wolves, foxes and bobcats, to name a few.

“We’re considered ‘essential,’ so it was business as usual for us. The animals had the same high-quality care … so their care did not get affected at all, and so no employees were let go,” Van Hoecke said of her zoo animals, which are not relocated elsewhere for the winter.

Walz indicated Thursday more retailers would be allowed to open and offer delivery or curbside pickup options, but also extended the closures of dine-in restaurants and bars until May 18. On April 23, he announced schools would not be reopening this spring.

Mary Schneider (left) and Bunny Tabott with her dog Dixie watch North American river otters Ted and Dave swim April 15, 2019, in the new Pine Grove Zoo exhibit in Little Falls in this file photo. The new aquarium, which opened that day for the 2019 season, features an acrylic tank and tunnel where the otters can be viewed safely. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“School groups are a huge financial impact in May, so when they were closed, that made a great impact, financially. What that means, exactly, we won’t know until the end of the year, but it most certainly has affected us very, very much,” Van Hoecke said of canceled school field trips.


Pine Grove Zoo offers birthday celebrations at, and educational tours of, the zoo as well as a petting stable, walking trails, and picnic and playground areas besides the exotic, native and domestic animals in spacious, natural habitats.

“It isn’t just admission numbers. Families that are hurting now as well are not getting family memberships. Businesses are hurting, and so we’re not getting business memberships. Gift shop sales are down because nobody’s here, so this is huge for us,” Van Hoecke said of the delays.

Pine Grove Zoo boasts a wolf education building, a state-of-the-art bear exhibit, new food preparation facilities and paved walkways, which give families, the handicapped and elderly more accessibility, according to its website.

“The zoo is a huge place, so people can social distance quite easily here. And in our admissions and gift shop, we will have the marks that create a social distance of 6 feet. We have all of our staff wear masks … and for the public we’ll have extra sanitizing going on,” Van Hoecke said.

Safari North Wildlife Park

Vogel expressed similar concerns about Safari North Wildlife Park, the Brainerd lakes area attraction he created six years ago with his wife Kelly. They spent 20 years traveling the Midwest with their petting zoos, camel and pony rides, pig races and wildlife educational shows.

“‘Can we get open? Can we get open?’ That’s what’s really stressful at this point,” Vogel said. “We have basically 100 days to make all of our money for the whole year. I mean, Memorial Day to Labor Day is prime tourist season. If we lose those days, it’s going to be devastating.”

A sloth bear stands by the fence barrier, Thursday, April 30, at Safari North Wildlife Park on Highway 371 south of Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch


Safari North Wildlife Park features bears, tigers, kangaroos, leopards, cougars, bobcats, alligators, lynx, lemurs, monkeys, otters, zebras, porcupines, warthogs, hyenas and barnyard animals, according to Explore Minnesota, the state’s official tourism website.

“Well, we have about 150 different species,” Vogel said. “We still have a full-time staff of six zookeepers, you know, all winter long that feed and take care of everything. Everything stays here. We have six barns that we heat throughout the winter, you know, for various animals.”

The park opened in 2014 and recently was named No. 1 for “best place for summer family fun” in the Brainerd lakes area in the Brainerd Dispatch’s “Best of the Brainerd lakes” contest. Vogel, however, said he is “extremely concerned” about the delays regarding opening this season.

“We’re an outside attraction, so I mean we can do the social distancing. We have 43 acres, here, and we can spread people out, so I’m not worried once they come,” Vogel said.

The American Veterinary Medical Association and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that those who are sick because of the coronavirus should limit contact with animals.

“We always have had, since we opened, we’ve got the handwashing stations. … We’re going to follow any guidelines that are recommended to us and do whatever we have to do to make people feel safe and to give them a good enjoyable experience,” Vogel said.

Van Hoecke said, “We’re going to do everything that is required to open safely and ensuring the safety of everyone. For us, I think, we just want everybody to be safe.”

FRANK LEE, county and features reporter, may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .


I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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