The Burnsville City Council on Tuesday night unanimously approved the necessary permits to open a petting zoo featuring exotic animals at Burnsville Center, despite concerns from animal rights groups about animal welfare and public safety.

The 17,000-square-foot indoor zoo in Burnsville — in the former Old Navy space — will feature dozens of animals, including kangaroos, alligators, goats, lemurs and capybaras, that visitors pay to pet and feed.

The petting zoo, called Sustainable Safari, has operated a location at Maplewood Mall since 2019. Both are majority-owned and founded by Bob Pilz, who said he has a farm in Scandia where his 300 animals are kept when not on display.

Dave Harvey, president and CEO of Sustainable Safari, said the businesses' mission is to create "an emotional bond" between visitors and animals so people will be motivated to save the animals and their vanishing habitat.

"Nobody's done the actual kind of interactive experience that we've done," said Harvey, adding that the novel parts of the business are its permanent mall location, the range of exotic species featured and the "up-close" encounters it provides.

But Zack Eichten, the Minnesota state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said the group is concerned about Pilz's ability to provide even basic care for animals in a small indoor space. He said Pilz's previous business, Cock-a-Doodle Zoo in Scandia, was cited by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) 25 times for violations related to animal care and housing between 2016 and 2021.

Some of the animals Pilz keeps can be "quite dangerous" to the public, including several species that carry rabies and cannot be vaccinated, he said.

"We're worried about the welfare of the animals, we're worried about the welfare of any visitors," Eichten said in an interview. "[This] is just a roadside zoo with a different name."

The City Council, which has been eager to see space filled in the nearly empty mall, delayed a planned vote on Sustainable Safari in July after the Humane Society and several residents raised concerns.

Council member Cara Schulz said that while she personally doesn't like the idea of animals residing in zoos or aquariums, there was "no reason to not approve this."

"It is not the role of government to become involved in the private business if the businesses are following the ordinances and the rules," she said.

Burnsville's Planning Commission recommended the council approve Sustainable Safari's permit application with several conditions. Sustainable Safari must renew its permanent animal permit annually and maintain its USDA license and all required state permits.

Seven people spoke at Tuesday's council meeting in opposition to the zoo.

"It just doesn't make sense to have animals at a petting zoo at the mall," said Courtney White of Burnsville. "It's preposterous."

White noted that there are 75 zoonotic diseases — illnesses that can spread from animals to humans — that people can contract without touching an animal. Minnesotans already have the world-class Minnesota Zoo here, she said, adding that animals like penguins and kangaroos are not supposed to be in the state.

Ashley Riddle, co-president of the Animal Rights Coalition, said she visited the Maplewood location and was "surprised and saddened" to see seven kangaroos kept in a small enclosure. "I have a really hard time believing they're having all their needs met," she said.

Harvey said that the USDA violations for which Pilz's previous business was cited were "not critical" violations and became learning opportunities.

He said the Maplewood location brings in 100,000 visitors a year and has revitalized a "dead end" area of the mall.

About 50 jobs will be created by opening the Burnsville location, company leaders said.

Sustainable Safari is pursuing accreditation from the Zoological Association of America, Harvey said, a membership-based organization with many smaller zoos and wildlife parks as members. The Minnesota Zoo and most larger zoos are accredited by a different group, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

At the meeting, Pilz said the reason animals were "good in the mall" is because he personally raised them. Sustainable Safari has a ventilation system that recycles the air every six minutes, he said, and uses software that monitors animals' vital statistics daily.

In four years in Maplewood, only about five out of 350,000 visitors have been bitten or scratched by an animal, he said.

"We are doing things really well," Pilz said. "I take great pride in what I do [but] I can't make everyone happy."