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What’s new at Safari North, Pine Grove Zoo

Safari North Wildlife Park in Brainerd reopens May 7, and Pine Grove Zoo switches to its summer hours starting Sunday, May 1, respectively, with plans for new animals, exhibits and rides after a tumultuous few years of business in a world upended by the coronavirus pandemic.

A cheetah rolls onto her back at Safari North.
Malini the cheetah rolls onto her back while playing in her enclosure Friday, April 29, 2022, at Safari North Wildlife Park south of Brainerd.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — Safari North Wildlife Park and Pine Grove Zoo share something in common when they reopen: sheer animal magnetism.

The popular tourist attractions in Brainerd and Little Falls begin their new seasons with plans for more animals, renovated exhibits and new amusement rides, in one case.

“One of our bigger expansions or, I guess, upgrades that we're doing this year is we're asphalting all the trails in the park, all the walkways,” said Safari North co-owner Kevin Vogel. “We got about half of them done last fall, and they're going to come out now about mid-May.”

A Safari North Wildlife Park giraffe leans down over the fence at the Brainerd lakes area tourist attraction to greet visitors.
A Safari North Wildlife Park giraffe leans down over the fence at the Brainerd lakes area tourist attraction to greet visitors.
Contributed / Kelly Plummer

Plans for the Safari North Wildlife Park this year include renovating the zoo’s parakeet encounter and replacing the exhibit’s dusty gravel floor with concrete.

“We have like a little sandpit that's going to be in the little island in the middle where the birds are going to be able to go, so you’ll be able to walk around the whole thing,” Vogel said. “They’ll be flying all around, but they can roost in the middle, so it’s just going to be a nice, clean look.”

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Vogel said he plans to also add primate exhibits to the popular Brainerd lakes area tourist attraction along Highway 371, about 8 miles southwest of Brainerd.

“Unfortunately, because of the weather, cold and frost that’s in the ground, we won't have them completed by opening, but there will be more primate exhibits,” Vogel said Thursday, April 28.

Safari North Wildlife Park

Last year, Safari North Wildlife Park opened for its season with the then-new “Expedition Safari” exhibit featuring lions, hyenas, monkeys, zebras, wildebeest, ostrich, buffalo, eland and more.

“We love spreading our vast knowledge of these animals, so we can all appreciate their place and importance in our ecosystem,” Vogel said.

A deer gets up close to a wide angle lens at Safari North.
A deer checks out the people who had entered the deer enclosure Friday, April 29, 2022, at Safari North Wildlife Park.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Guests can take in the 10-acre safari by riding a locomotive train through the latest exhibit, which costs $5 more than the park’s standard admission cost or $4 for park members. Safari North purchased the two-car locomotive from the Dakota Zoo in Bismarck, North Dakota.

Safari North Wildlife Park is also one of the few zoos in the Midwest with cheetahs, which are part of the park’s big cat offerings that include tigers, lions, a jaguar and leopards.

“Our dedication to our animals is second to none, and we are very proud of the care they receive,” Vogel said.

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Safari North Wildlife Park now has an amusement park, too, in addition to the 150 species of animals from six continents, including baby animals.

“We had the amusement rides last year, and what they’re doing this year is changing out a couple of rides, and they’re adding one or two, so I know we have a carousel coming, I know there’s a tilt-a-whirl coming,” Vogel said.

Safari North Wildlife Park lion
A lion lounges on the ground during a sunny day at Safari North Wildlife Park on Highway 371.
Contributed / Kelly Plummer

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

“We see families come back year after year because of the experience we provide them and the animals,” Vogel said of the park that specializes in up-close and personal experiences with the animals.

Guests can also feed the giraffes, ride camels and mine for gemstones at the park, which includes a barnyard petting zoo, when it reopens Saturday, May 7.

Pine Grove Zoo

Pine Grove Zoo opened earlier for the season than Safari North. The Little Falls-based zoo reopened on April 15 but switched to its summer hours of operation beginning Sunday, May 1.

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“For Mother's Day, we do offer free petting stable pellets for all the mothers that come in for the day, so they are able to feed our petting stable family down there,” said Vicki Villebro, Pine Grove Zoo’s marketing director.

The zoo in Morrison County features about a hundred animals, including zebras, kangaroos, emus, prairie dogs, porcupines, black bears, Siberian tigers, wolves, foxes and bobcats.

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One of the more popular activities at Pine Grove Zoo is yoga sessions with the zoo’s “sweet and gentle” female kangaroos. “Yoga with the ‘Roos” will be offered July 15 and Aug. 19.

“You actually go into the kangaroo exhibit and do yoga poses,” Villebro said. “We have a certified yoga instructor that leads the class, and our kangaroo female girls get to hang out with you … and get some selfies and also (it’s) a good opportunity to touch them.”

The zoo reopened in 2019 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at its new North American river otter exhibit. The zoo’s otter exhibit is one of only two otter exhibits in the nation with a 10-foot see-through tunnel visitors can crawl through to view the carnivorous mammals.

“We do have a couple of baby river otters that were born to us this year by our resident river otters, Dewie and Teddy, and they're about 6 weeks old as of Tuesday, so, eventually, when they're a little bit older, they'll be out in one of our exhibits part of the day,” Villebro said.

New last year in the Pine Grove Zoo’s petting stable are two dwarf Hotot rabbits, Sebastian and Felix. But in addition to the new baby otters Willow and Brooks this year, the zoo will receive a two-toed sloth that will make its debut at the zoo in late May or early June.

“We do have our capuchin monkeys that will be on exhibit this year as soon as the weather turns a little bit warmer,” Villebro said Thursday. “They need to be out when it's 65 degrees or warmer, along with our squirrel monkeys, which come out when it’s 70 degrees.”

Pine Grove Zoo’s summer presentations begin May 27 on Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day and are featured 2:30 p.m. daily with paid admission. The schedule at Pine Grove Zoo is as follows:

  • Creature Feature, Sundays and Wednesdays — Zookeepers will highlight one of Pine Grove Zoo’s Outreach Ambassadors, and visitors will learn about the species and have an opportunity to meet them.
  • Catch a C.H.O.M.P. presentation, Mondays — The acronym stands for carnivore, herbivore or omnivore meal presentation. Visitors will learn why specific diets are necessary for Pine Grove Zoo’s animals and get a chance to see them enjoying their meals.
  • Training demonstrations, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays — Zookeepers will feature a specific animal and demonstrate their training program and highlight why it’s important to the health and well-being of their animal family.
  • Enrichment demonstrations, Fridays — Visitors will learn what enrichment is and why it is so important. One of their animal family members will receive an enrichment during the demonstration.
Funky the capuchin monkey at Pine Grove Zoo
Funky the capuchin monkey looks at his surroundings. He and another capuchin monkey named Scooter will make their debut this year at Pine Grove Zoo in Little Falls.
Contributed / Vicki Villebro

Hours and information

  • Safari North Wildlife Park on Highway 371 in the Brainerd lakes area will be open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily starting Saturday, May 7. For more information, visit safarinorth.com or call 218-454-1662.
  • Pine Grove Zoo in Little Falls is open 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday, May 1, through Labor Day; and 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays from Sept. 6 through Oct. 16. For more information, call 320-616-5595 or email info@pinegrovezoo.com . ezoo.com .

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

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I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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