Minn. Zoo sets sight on seal exhibit

Officials at the Minnesota Zoo have set their sights on a group of endangered seals to replace the zoo's popular dolphin program.

Zoo director Lee Ehmke said the National Marine Fisheries Service is looking to place a number of orphaned Hawaiian monk seals.

Ehmke says the rescued animals suffer from health conditions that make them unable to return to the wild.

"In addition to providing a refuge, we can probably provide a little bit of research as to what's impacting these animals in nature. They're found stranded — in some cases, in a weakened condition, and in some cases, with impaired eyesight," Ehmke said. "What is happening out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that's causing this is sort of a big mystery."

Hawaiian monk seals are "extremely" endangered, Ehmke said, with only about 1,100 of their kind in the world. Displaying the species would allow the zoo to teach the public about conservation efforts and the overall health of the Pacific Ocean, he said.

Ehmke says he is working with the federal government to see if the animals would be a good fit for the Apple Valley facility. The exhibit could open as soon as early next year.

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Ehmke said if the Legislature plans to pass a bonding bill this year, the zoo would seek up to $26 million for exhibit upgrades. Some of that money would go toward improvements to Discovery Bay, which until recently housed the zoo's dolphin collection, now defunct.

The zoo closed its dolphin tanks last year after six dolphins, including one stillborn, died in its care.

The seals would require only minimal modifications to the exhibit, which officials hope to pay for with bonding money the zoo received last year, Ehmke said. An earlier plan to replace the dolphins with schools of fish and stingrays proved to be more expensive than anticipated.

Last year, the zoo secured $4 million of the $30 million it requested and then announced it was getting rid of its dolphins. That outraged some legislators, who assumed the animals would still be there after the upgrades were made. Ehmke accepted blame for the confusion and said he has worked hard to smooth over any misunderstanding.

"Whatever issues of concern were raised last spring, they've been taken care of," Ehmke said.