After being allowed to stay open during the government shutdown, Minnesota Zoo welcomes its newest additions.
The Minnesota Zoo is counting on 18 cute little penguins to erase memories of last weekend's two-day closing brought on by the state government shutdown.
The African penguins make their public debut Saturday, part of the Apple Valley zoo's ambitious effort to refurbish itself after more than three decades in business.
Last weekend's shutdown, however, was a reminder of the zoo's vulnerability to state budgetary pitfalls. Instead of being greeted by a new main entrance, zoo visitors last Friday ran into closed gates that did not reopen until a judge ruled that the zoo doesn't require a legislative appropriation to operate.
"We're just glad that we're going to be able to open the exhibit," said Jimmy Pichner, avian supervisor at the zoo, minutes before feeding the zoo's new tuxedoed guests this week.
Last weekend's shutdown put a temporary damper on the zoo's plans. Instead of showcasing the kickoff elements of their ambitious "Heart of the Zoo'' campaign to enhance programs and facilities, zoo leaders mulled concerns including the economic impact of possibly being closed during its peak visitor season. Last Friday was to mark the unveiling of the new main entrance -- long dominated by a looming wall -- that was upgraded with native plantings, updated signs and sculptural elements.
"It was kind of a schizophrenic week," said Zoo Director Lee Ehmke.
Ehmke is hoping for better luck Saturday when the zoo premieres 3M Penguins of the African Coast, a new permanent exhibit that replicates South Africa's Boulders Beach and houses 18 endangered African penguins.
The exhibit is in an area previously known as the Minnesota Zoo's Indoor Theatre. The new Cargill Environmental Education Center will feature a classroom designed to allow guests to view the new penguin exhibit.
It's made for a busy summer at the zoo, which also recently converted its former beluga whale tank to a theater. Ehmke said one of his biggest challenges will be to continue to raise funds. The zoo receives 29 percent of its operating funds from the state, compared with an average of 40 percent public funding for zoos and aquariums nationwide. The number was about 60 percent when the zoo opened in 1978.
"I think everyone appreciates what the zoo does and believes it's important for the quality of life and the economy here in Minnesota," he said. "I'm optimistic about our ability to continue to work with the state and the private sector together to build a great zoo."
Earlier this year, Ehmke got a taste of what kind of budget issues he could face in the future. In March, he testified at legislative hearings against a Senate proposal seeking a 15 percent cut in state operating funds for the zoo. Such a reduction could have meant the closing of a major exhibit, he said.
To prepare for budget constraints, the zoo decided not to open its seasonal butterfly exhibit this summer.
Officials say one of the challenges the zoo faces is the absence of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. As a legislator, he represented the district where the zoo sits and had been a big supporter of it. The state capital projects bill that he signed as governor last year gave $21 million to help with the zoo's plans.
Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, who chairs the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, said legislative support for the zoo hasn't faltered. "They've shown how they can leverage the state funding and the private funding," McNamara said.
The penguins are expected to be a popular draw and help bolster zoo attendance. About 1.17 million people visited the zoo in the fiscal year that ended June 30. That's down a bit from the past two record years, when annual attendance topped 1.3 million people.
"These guys are really fun," Pichner said of the penguins. "This exhibit is designed, unlike a lot of exhibits, so that no matter where the birds pretty much are, you're nose to nose with them -- or nose to beak, maybe, as the case may be."
Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495