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Blank Park Zoo
"Iowa's Wildest Adventure"
Blank Park Zoo Entrance.jpg
Blank Park Zoo Entrance
Date opened May 8, 1966
Location Des Moines, Iowa, United States
Land area 49 acres
Coordinates 41.5193° N, 93.6242° W
No. of animals 1,484
No. of species 104
Memberships AZA

Blank Park Zoo is a 49-acre zoological park on the south side of Des Moines, Iowa, United States, near historic Fort Des Moines. It is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), and is the only accredited zoo in Iowa. The mission of the Blank Park Zoo is to inspire an appreciation of the natural world through conservation, education, research, and recreation.


In 1963, A.H. Blank donated $150,000 for the construction of a children's zoo on decommissioned Fort Des Moines property. The Des Moines Children’s Zoo was officially opened on May 8, 1966. It was originally designed around nursery rhymes and included a castle with moat, replica of Noah's Ark, petting zoo and miniature railroad.

Over the next 16 years the city failed to make improvements to the zoo, and it was on the verge of closing until in 1981 a group of civic-minded business leaders formed the Blank Park Zoo Foundation to help save the zoo. The foundation's number-one goal was to provide financial support for capital improvements, animal acquisitions and promotional and marketing activities.

The foundation succeeded by forming a partnership with the City of Des Moines that resulted in a $1.8 million bond referendum, as well as an additional $1.4 million from the community. At the end of 1982 the zoo closed for some much needed renovations.

On May 17, 1986 the zoo reopened, featuring geographic themed exhibits with spacious, naturally landscaped environments. In 1987 the zoo was accredited by the AZA.

In 1995 the Blank Park Zoo Foundation purchased 25.3 acres (10.2 ha) of additional historic Fort Des Moines property and nine historic buildings for future growth and expansion of the zoo. It also began a capital campaign to build a new great cats exhibit and a 30,000-square-foot (2,800 m2) indoor Discovery Center exhibit.

On May 1, 1999 the Tom and Jo Ghrist Great Cats exhibit opened, and on September 1, 2001, the Blank Park Zoo opened the Myron & Jackie Blank Discovery Center. On July 1, 2003 the Blank Park Zoo Foundation and City of Des Moines completed a new 28E agreement to transfer the operations and management of the zoo to the foundation. Terry Rich was hired as the zoo's first-ever chief executive officer, marking a new era in zoo history. Initial Spring Break and Holiday Safaris were introduced with much success.

In 2011, new signage and interactives were installed in the Great Cats kiosks, the David Kruidenier Australia Adventure opened featuring the endangered cassowary, the sea lion pool was rebuilt, and a special dinosaur exhibit was open all summer in the Zoo Plex.

The "Big Dig" event was held at Blank Park Zoo to generate excitement about expansion, with 8,000 in attendance.

Behind the scenes a new quarantine facility was constructed to help animal management, and a new veterinarian agreement with Iowa State University was signed.

Major exhibits

The Blank Park Zoo contains a variety of wildlife in various exhibits.

Myron and Jackie Blank Discovery Center

The Discovery Center is an entirely enclosed area visitors encounter first when entering the zoo, and contains various species of plants and animals. The Discovery Center contains separate sections to create a unique viewing experience:

Meredith Alpine Exhibit

Visitors can find the Meredith Alpine Exhibit at the entrance of the Discovery Center, accessible through the zoo's main visitor lobby. Here, visitors can view the zoo's pair of red pandas from an indoor enclosure with attached travel tunnel, allowing the animals additional space in an outdoor exhibit.

The Cave

The Cave immediately follows the Meredith Alpine Exhibit and contains most of the zoo's nocturnal animals, alongside a few enclosed reptile exhibits including:

Free Range Tropical Aviary

home to tropical forest-dwelling birds such as the pink pigeon, mountain peacock-pheasant, ringed teal, silver-eared mesia, scarlet-chested parrot, pheasant pigeon, Gouldian finch, sunbittern, common emerald dove, Victoria crowned pigeon, speckled mousebird, and mountain bamboo partridge. Some enclosed exhibits are home to scarlet macaws, golden-headed lion tamarins, and toco toucans.

Aquarium of the Discovery Center

The Aquarium of the Discovery Center includes aquatic environments from all around the world. A waterfall feature can be seen above the Amazon River Pool. The pool includes tropical river fish such as tambaqui (Pacu), redtail catfish, and silver arowana. The coral reef exhibit is home to species of aquatic life from coral reefs around the world including coral, sea anemone, clown triggerfish, foureye butterflyfish, clownfish, schooling bannerfish, yellow tang, and Achilles tang.

Jaama Kwa: Connection to Africa

Opened in spring 2013 at a cost of $4.1 million, the zoo welcomed its new expansion of the existing African Boardwalk on the east side of the park. The expansion brought multiple new species to the zoo, including a pair of Eastern Black Rhinos, giant eland, common ostrich, kori bustard, blue wildebeest, African spurred tortoise, okapi, and nyala.

Prior to the expansion, the zoo held a smaller collection of African species, including Reticulated giraffe, Hartmann's mountain zebra, addax, African crowned crane, and guinea fowl. All still reside at the zoo on the renovated boardwalk adjacent to the newly constructed area.

After coming to the zoo in 2012 based on a Species Survival Plan (SSP) recommendation, the zoo's Eastern Black Rhinos Ayana and Kiano welcomed their first calf, female Tumani in 2016. In 2019, a second rhino birth was announced from the same pair. A name contest was conducted by the public with the calf officially being named Kamara in the months following.

David Kruidenier Australia Adventure

Completed in July 2011, this Australian-themed section of the zoo brings visitors into the great Australian outback, which includes an Australian-themed barn, and many animals including double-wattled cassowary, laughing kookaburra, red-necked wallaby, and common peafowl. A specially designed aviary can also be found within this exhibit, homed to the rainbow lorikeet.

Kids' Kingdom

In late June 2007, the zoo, the Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute, and hundreds of volunteers from around Des Moines built the Kids' Kingdom playground. It includes 5,600 sq ft (520 m2) of slides, mazes, monkey bars, sand pits, fossil digs, and mining sluice. This area features many "contact animals" that visitors can feed. Animals in this area include Nigerian dwarf goats, llamas, miniature donkeys, zebu, Meishan pigs, Brahma chickens, koi fish, trumpeter swans, and dromedary camels.

Tom and Jo Ghrist Big Cat Complex

The cat exhibit opened in 1999 with snow leopards, Amur tigers, and African lions. Recently, this exhibit got a facelift with new interactive displays and new viewing area rocks.

Hub Harbor Pinniped Pavilion

The new seal/sea lion pool opened on March 17, 2012 after a year of reconstruction to the old pool. The exhibit now features two high-rise viewing areas, as well as an underwater viewing area for the zoo's California sea lions and harbor seals.

Notable residents of the pavilion include Ross and Meru, two harbor seals that came to the Blank Park Zoo from British Columbia. They were rescued off the coast of Canada when they were just five days old, severely malnourished and dehydrated. The Vancouver Marine Mammal Rescue Center nursed them back to health. After examination, the center declared that they were non-releasable due to health disabilities. They found a permanent home at the zoo after the reconstruction of Hub Harbor, where they now reside.

The exhibit welcomed its newest resident, a young sea lion named Meatball, in spring 2020 from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in California.

Miscellaneous animal exhibits

In addition to animals in the major exhibits, the zoo includes many individual exhibits that are home to animals including:

Bald Eagles

Chilean flamingo

North American River Otter

Black-tailed prairie dogs

Aldabra giant tortoise

Ring-tailed lemurs

Magellanic penguins

White-handed gibbons

Japanese macaque

Proboscis monkeys

Giant anteater

Conservation initiatives

Starting in 1997, the Blank Park Zoo Conservation Committee has raised funds for a wide variety of worldwide conservation projects. The primary projects of the committee must be international, focus on protecting animals or their natural ecosystems, and have some tie to the Blank Park Zoo. Money is collected through various means such as children's face painting, special event raffles, and coin donation buckets.

In 2012, the Conservation Committee participated in these projects:

  • Species Survival Plan - programs set up for endangered species in captivity
  • The International Snow Leopard Trust - to protect the natural habitat of snow leopards
  • Greater Prairie Chicken Project - helping restore and sustain Iowa's population of native chickens
  • Giraffe Conservation Foundation - helping to promote and support giraffe conservation initiatives
  • The Great Ape Trust - aimed to rescue orangutans and bonobos in areas of deforestation and poaching
  • Panamanian Golden Frogs - aimed to sponsor a program to release captive frogs into the wild
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