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Historic Pine Grove Zoo dates back over 100 years

Pine Grove Zoo in Little Falls has a history that parallels that of Como Zoo in St. Paul. Como Zoo is the only zoo in the state older than Pine Grove Zoo. As developers moved into both the St. Paul and Little Falls areas in the late 19th century, they recognized the need and benefit to their communities in setting aside land for public use. The budget for the larger metropolitan area has always been more substantial, but Little Falls was only about 20 years behind when it came to setting aside land for a city park and zoo. Private money, $100,000, allowed the purchase of 300 acres on the shores of St. Paul’s Como Lake in 1873. That land changed hands several times until 1887 when that city allocated funds to develop the area into a “landscape park for physical and moral satisfaction.” During those years, Little Falls development was underway. The dam was built along with a power company and paper mill. Soon after the large stands of white pine in the area were being cut for what would become a major milling center for the entire northwest part of the country. A group of prominent businessmen saw a need to preserve some of the old growth forest and identified a tract of land on the west side of town. Funds from these businessmen, the city of Little Falls, and public donations equaled the $4,100 needed to purchase the 55 acres.  On September 13, 1907, those 55 acres were deeded to the City of Little Falls, “for the enjoyment, pleasure, and benefit of the people of the area.”  If you do the math, you’ll find that the St. Paul acreage went for $333.33 per acre in 1873 while land in Little Falls, just over 30 years later, was only $74.55. A renowned landscape architect at the time was quoted as saying that St. Paul and other cities should set aside land for parks before it became scarce and too expensive. Both sites had inauspicious beginnings as zoos. In 1897, a piece of pasture within Como Park was fenced to hold three deer. Apparently no further additions were made for 30 years. In 1913, the Little Falls Park Committee purchased and donated two great horned owls to Pine Grove Park. That same fall, they added two white-tailed deer, and in the next few years, these were joined by a moose, elk, peafowl, goats, squirrels, porcupines, woodchucks and raccoons. During those years, Pine Grove Zoo had more for visitors to see than Como. By 1917, however, Pine Grove Park was concerned about the cost of maintaining the animals and determined that as they were lost they would not be replaced. In the 1930s, both zoos enjoyed the benefits of the federally funded Works Progress Administration (WPA), a depression-era program to put the unemployed populace back to work. Stone walls and structures were built in both zoos, neither of which had seen major additions or improvements in some time. Pine Grove’s stone structures included a cut granite wall along the road on the south edge of the zoo, a hexagon building now used as an education building, a shelter building near the playground, and a “council circle” in the park’s woods. Como gained a bear grotto, Monkey Island, the barn and the main zoo building. While the Minnesota Legislature has allocated large sums of money for St. Paul’s gem of a park, Little Falls and the Zoological Society, which was formed in 1991 to make improvements and educate folks about the Pine Grove Zoo, struggled with more of a hand-to-mouth sort of existence. The Society has been a dedicated group, and with its incorporation as the Friends of Pine Grove Zoo in 1999, it has made steady progress and improvements. It now manages the zoo for the city of Little Falls. Today the Como Zoo has million-dollar appropriations, a large staff and visitor base befitting its location within a major U.S. city. Pine Grove Zoo remains a small town zoo, yet it is a central Minnesota treasure and draws 40,000 visitors a year. “Our memberships and admissions as well as city appropriations are our primary sources of funding,” said Marnita Van Hoecke, who has been with the zoo the last 15 years, the last six years as zoo director. “We have a phenomenal membership base, averaging 1,500 to 2,000 and growing. Our fall Zoo Boo (an annual fundraiser as well as an autumn celebration) brings 4,500 people through in 2.5 hours.” Next year will offer special activities and festivities in conjunction with the zoo’s 100th anniversary. Pine Grove Zoo, open mid-April through mid-October, has three full-time employees and two part-time zoo keepers/ vet technicians. At peak season, the part timers swell to 12. “We all multi-task,” said Leah Oetting, the senior zoo keeper/enrichment & education coordinator for the last 13 years. Todd Johnson is zoo keeper and head of maintenance, and Mary Olson serves as the volunteer coordinator. This small staff cares for the large cat exhibits, a petting stable, a wolf education building, a remodeled wolf enclosure, a one-of-a-kind state-of-the-art bear exhibit, a new Rocky Mountain habitat, food preparation facilities, quarantine areas, public restrooms, paved walkways, a gift shop, and a café for zoo guests. They offer memberships, educational programs, special tours for school groups, nighttime zoo events, seasonal events, shelter rental (daytime only), “Wild Child” party packages for kids ages 3-12 and “Get Wild” parties for 13 and up. Memberships include a special group rate for grandparents with up to six grandchildren. “We have hundreds of grandparent/grandchild memberships,” said Van Hoecke of this incredible opportunity for these two generations to bond while learning. She also said the rustic cabin shelter is a popular spot with a unique atmosphere set in the last standing grove of old growth white pines in Minnesota. Oetting noted that the bear exhibit is among the favorites of zoo visitors. “We have four American black bears, two juveniles and two adults.” The zoo also brings in cubs from Bear Country USA. Last year the zoo offered its first overnight camping event. It was held on a Thursday night. By popular demand, this fun-filled starlit happening has been moved to a Friday night so the not normally nocturnal people don’t have to work the next day. “We had an outstanding response last year,” said Van Hoecke. “We had a sing-along, campfire (fake because of the 2011 fire danger) and tours. They saw animals doing things they would never see in a daytime visit.”

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