The Dillahunt family loves bears. They spend hours driving to famous bear-watching sites in the North Woods. Bryce, age 2, wears a hat with bear ears.

But they've never had the feeling they got this week at a members-only preview of a newly installed exhibit at the Minnesota Zoo.

"To see them this close!" Tom Dillahunt murmured as two of the orphaned cubs passed inches away from the riveted eyes of both his kids. "Never as close as this."

Thirty-eight years after the zoo first opened, decades after the question arose of whether to display one of the great icons of the Minnesota forest, black bears have finally made it to Apple Valley.

Three two-year-old cubs are racing around their new home, mesmerizing kids who watch from behind the glass -- and occasionally get spooked as the great shaggy beasts, dripping with pond water, loom over them suddenly.

The arrival this late in the game of a species so central to Minnesota's pine-forest identity is a story of a dramatic change in approach, a shift away from the austere scientific purity of the zoo's early years and toward a cheerful populism that has led to record attendance, record membership and record donations.

Zoo director Lee Ehmke said Thursday that he knew within the first year of his arrival from New York's Bronx Zoo in 2000 that he wanted to bring lots of bears to the zoo.

"I committed right away to a focus on Minnesota wildlife," he said. "We'd always had a 'Minnesota Trail,' but it was in shambles when I arrived. People couldn't even find it, much less be interested enough to go in. The renovation of that trail was my first big change. I would love to have added black bears back then, but we had a limited budget.

"We did ensure that we had every major Minnesota species but the black bear, which is arguably the most iconic of all. We brought in wolves, coyotes and eagles."

The new bear exhibit, all by itself -- counting viewing and behind-the-scenes holding areas -- covers roughly 15,000 square feet and cost $1.75 million. It brings to the zoo a species with a special connection to humans.

Many parents who brought kids to the zoo this week for pre-opening showings talked about the bears the kids have at home.

"His favorite is one he calls 'Mister Bear,'" said Tara Helfritz of Rosemount, referring to 2-year-old Ethan, watching rapt from a stroller. "So it's pretty exciting to see these guys for real."

The exhibit stresses the prevalence of the bear in pop culture: Pooh Bear. Smokey Bear. The Care Bears. Yogi Bear. Coca-Cola's soulful polar bears. Perhaps no other animal has this kind of presence in pop culture, zoo officials say.

What's the source of their appeal?

"They have features that are undeniably expressive but also infant-like," Ehmke said. "The big eyes, the ears, the cuddliness. And they're all about seeking things out. They're very curious, they investigate their world with nose, claws and teeth, looking for food primarily, but like dogs, curious and interested in what's novel, what's happening on the other side of the glass. It's one reason we like them."

The big muddy paw prints on the glass when the first visitors arrived this week were proof of that.

"We worried this wouldn't work this well because black bears tend to be timid," said the zoo's Tom Ness, who oversees the Minnesota Trail. "But the two boys, in particular, are very bold and coming right up front."

The three bears were all orphaned in 2010 in the Leech Lake area of northern Minnesota, and have been at the zoo, behind the scenes, since that year.

It's unusual for a big new exhibit to open after the peak summer months, and the fact that the bear exhibit opens just days after disappearance from public view of the zoo's dolphins, following a series of deaths, raises the question of whether they are meant to counter the downer that an empty Discovery Bay represents.

Not really, Ehmke said. "The timing on the bears has been known for a long time; on the dolphins, it's much more recent."

Visitors this week did seem hip to the fact that Ehmke has orchestrated a series of tweaks and additions -- some major, some minor -- over many years designed to maintain a certain buzz.

Among the results:

• Total visits last fiscal year reached nearly 1.37 million, best in the zoo's history.

• Membership is at an all-time high: about 46,000 households, representing about 175,000 individuals.

• Three of the past four years have seen records for donations.

• Thanks in part to generous state assistance in building exhibits, state operational funding has dropped to 24 percent of the budget today, compared with about 60 percent in the '80s.

Next up: a new master plan that is likely to contemplate the addition of African animals that are the features of so many zoos, including St. Paul's Como. In fact, as Ehmke spoke by cellphone late Thursday, wild shrieking could be heard behind him as he inspected apes at the zoo in Phoenix.

Bears of a different sort first arrived at the Minnesota Zoo a few years ago, when Ehmke's marquee offering, Russia's Grizzly Coast, brought brown bears from Alaska. But these new guys are locals, from lake country.

Tom Dillahunt, for one, finds that satisfying.

"Finally the Minnesota Trail -- the Minnesota Zoo -- has black bears. You think of Minnesota, you think turkeys, wolves, eagles, bears. The zoo is starting to feel more complete."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285