Beginning of the Dakota Zoo

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As summer draws closer, more and more people will be heading outside to enjoy activities in the sunshine. One things to do is visit the Dakota Zoo. And, with a population increase, many newcomers to the city probably don't know how the zoo started.

The zoo began with a Bismarck couple who had a love for all animals.

In the late 1950's Marc and Betty Christianson had a hobby farm in North West, Bismarck with a number of different animals.

"I grew up with a pet mountain lion in the house, monkeys, boa constrictors, baby alligators and it was just natural we had so many animals around our little hobby farm," said Jim Christianson, son of Marc and Betty Christianson.

As word spread of the Christianson family having so many exotic animals, so did the interest from schools and the public. More and more people would stop by the house to see the animals and at that point it was time to build the zoo.

"My mom kind of said you know maybe Bismarck needs a zoo for all these animals and my dad agreed and went and built the zoo," said Jim.

The zoo officially opened in 1961, and Jim says that having community support has been vital in making the zoo what it is today.

"The whole community of Bismarck and Mandan got behind the zoo and have been behind the zoo ever since and that's the reason for its success," said Jim.

Marc Christianson's grandchildren have fond memories of visiting the zoo with him.

"I remember when we were little and coming here with him and it was always just cool to just be able to say my grandpa started the zoo," said Lauren Christianson, granddaughter of Marc and Betty Christianson.

However, one the best memories most people will have will be of Marc Christianson's favorite animal, Richard the Lion Heart, a mountain lion.

"In the early 1960's, my dad would take him downtown for coffee and he would drive around in a zoo truck and the mountain lion was on a chain but he would stick his head out the window and go down to the GP hotel for coffee in the morning," said Jim.

Some of the members of the Christianson family say that they think Marc would be very proud of the zoo today and that it is more than he could have imagined.

The Dakota Zoo will be celebrating its 55th year on June 3.