Oleson Park Zoo plan OK’d

A big rodent called a capybara and several of its furry neighbors will be departing from the Oleson Park Zoo under the terms of a new contract governing the Fort Dodge animal attraction.

The contract, approved Wednesday by the city’s Parks, Recreation and Forestry Commission, reduces the number of animals there. Local officials and leaders of a private group, the Friends of the Oleson Park Zoo, hope to use the agreement as a stepping-stone toward major improvements that could be launched as soon as this fall.

A drawing showing a potential future zoo layout that features more natural-looking habitats rather than the current pens was introduced by Lori Branderhorst, the city’s director of parks, recreation and forestry.

The pact maintains the basic setup for operating the zoo which has been in place since about 2008. The city owns the property, which is located in Oleson Park at the south end of 17th Street, and the Friends group owns and cares for the animals.

”There’s no question that the citizens of Fort Dodge want that zoo out there,” said Steve Daniel, the chairman of the commission.

Jim Kramer, the president of the Friends group, said he was pleased with the agreement.

”I think we’ve come together and we’ve reached a common vision,” he told the commission. ”We have common goals and objectives. I think it is heartening to see the city’s increased interest in the zoo and the improvements.”

”It is certainly our long-term goal to improve the habitats realizing that we can’t do anything there without the city’s permission,” he added.

Commission member Dennis Pilcher was absent from the otherwise unanimous vote to approve the contract. It has already been approved by the Friends of the Oleson Park Zoo.

”This was not done haphazardly,” Branderhorst said of the agreement. ”We have spent a lot of money, a lot of time and effort out at the zoo investigating what we needed to do.”

To zoo visitors, the most obvious impact of the agreement will likely be the smaller number of animals on display.

The zoo is now home to about 60 animals.

The zoo’s population was one aspect of the facility that was questioned repeatedly after the deaths of a pair of Arctic foxes last summer led to criticism of the site.

The agreement calls for having about 48 animals there.

To reach that lower population level, the capybara, two kinkajous, a ferret, a chinchilla, two hedgehogs, a fenec fox and a miniature donkey will be removed. One muntjac deer has already departed. Branderhorst said all of the departing animals will be given new permanent homes.

A lemur, a primate from Madagascar, may be removed by the end of June.

Additionally, the baby wallaby and five or six young sheep and goats will be sold in the fall.

Under the terms of the deal, the commission and the Friends group will discuss potential further reductions in the animal population this fall.

Commission member Mary Jo Wagner said the number of animals in the zoo had become unmanageable.

”I’m glad we’re getting it down, but it’s still a lot of animals,” said Webster County Supervisor Mark Campbell, who is a member of the commission.

The wallabies, which are similar to kangaroos, will be staying. Branderhorst described them as a ”crowd pleaser.”

The contract makes the Friends group primarily responsible for providing veterinary care for the animals.

There is no veterinarian in Fort Dodge with the special training needed to care for the exotic animals. Branderhorst said the Friends group will have access to veterinarians at Iowa State University in Ames who have that training.

”It’s not ideal,” she said after the commission meeting. ”Ideally we would have an exotic vet here.”

Branderhorst said she is comfortable with the group’s volunteers relying on specialized care from veterinarians in Ames as long as they ”stay pro-active” and closely monitor the health of the animals.

During the meeting, she called for joining forces with the Friends group to raise money for a zoo overhaul.

”I think if the city is going to own a zoo that we need to do some investment,” she said. ”I think we need to really embrace a fundraising campaign to take out the pens.”

”It is our property and it needs to look better than it does,” she added.

The drawing prepared by Joe Mueller, a Fort Dodge graphic artist, shows a series of small ledges, trees and ponds where a row of wire cages sits now.

A cost estimate for creating that layout isn’t yet available. City employees would likely do all the needed work, but some extra money would have to be generated to buy any required materials. That additional revenue would be needed because the city’s zoo budget is $500 annually and the Friends group takes in less than $50,000 a year in donations, according to Internal Revenue Service records.

Under state law, the city can levy a property tax of 27 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to support the zoo. That levy is not used in Fort Dodge.

”It’s just not a good time for that at all,” Branderhorst said.