Interview: Hey, zookeeper Diana Weinhardt, what’s ursine?


“We’re bringing Russia to Minnesota.” This was my introduction to the new exhibit at the Minnesota Zoo, courtesy of the zoo’s communications manager Sue Gergen.

At the exhibit “Russia’s Grizzly Coast,” visitors are greeted by sea otters, who reside naturally in the Kuril Islands. These sinewy scamps slink, slither, and splash the day away. Next up: the Kamchatka peninsula, a rugged volcanic area. This region boasts the globe’s highest population of brown grizzly bears. Spectators get close-up glimpses of three of these majestic bears. From there it’s on to the Amur leopards and the wild boars. Elusive and sleepy when I visited, the leopards napped in the shadows. The exhibit ends with the Amur, or Siberian, tigers. These cats have lived here in Minnesota for 30 years. Their established zoo habitat is a natural finale to the newly built exhibit.

The Kamchatka grizzlies are among the largest in the world. Russia has the highest population, but poaching is threatening their numbers. Only about 400 Amur tigers now live in their natural environment, mostly in this Russian region. Overhunting nearly led to the sea otter’s extinction in 1911. Some populations are recovering—but poaching, oil spills and overfishing still endanger them. Less than 30 Amur leopards remain in the wild, all contained in the southern tip of Russia’s coastline. Recent public outcry has drawn attention to their endangerment. The Minnesota Zoo is dedicated to the preservation of all threatened species. Since the decade began, the zoo has received several awards in recognition of their efforts to save the Sumatran tiger, the Mexican grey wolf, and the American pronghorn, among others.

I spoke with Diana Weinhardt, supervisor of the Northern Trail.

What was it about this part of the world that led the Minnesota Zoo to showcase the Grizzly Coast?
This area is a ruggedly beautiful, largely unexplored, unknown territory. There are commonalities with Minnesota: the latitude, trees, and forests of the region are similar to our state. One of our staff, driving along the road in Russia, was reminded a great deal of Minnesota. The animals chosen to represent the region will adapt well and thrive in our climate. The animals are among the largest of their kind in the world, due to the abundance of their natural prey: salmon, shellfish, deer. They don’t have a lot of competition [in their native habitat], so they’ve been able to survive.

“These delightful carnivores have not changed much in personality.”

How has the public response been?
The positive feedback has been overwhelming. Zoo attendance is quite high this year. Visitors apparently love this exhibit. We utilize comment cards for visitor’s opinions. Normally visitors only contribute a few words, but with the Grizzly Coast, the cards are returning with comments filling pages. The bears and otters are particularly active and entertaining, and can be seen so close—I think that’s what the public responds to.

Can you share any personal stories about your experiences with the animals?
I worked for the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center for two years, as the appointed caretaker of the three orphan grizzly cubs, raised as siblings. There was a period of 12-18 months that I did not see them, and these delightful carnivores have not changed much in personality. Kenai is a runt, so he’s still the submissive little brother. Sadie is the smallest—and a female—but she’s the boss. Haines, named after the Alaskan town he was found roaming, is the largest and darkest, and he still bullies. He usually gets what he wants, but not if Sadie uses her veto power.

“The wild boars are more popular than I thought.”

Which have been the most popular animals in the new exhibit?
It’s a toss-up between the bears and the otters, but I’d have to say it’s the bears. I may be biased because of my past with them; I lived with them when they were babies. I thought the otters would be the scene stealers, but the bears, at least for now, seem to be the frontrunners. The wild boars are more popular than I thought—this may be due to the eight new piglets. Boris and Natasha, the lucky couple, gave birth to their brood April 1st.

How is the zoo working for the preservation of these endangered species?
We have a conservation project that funds projects all over the world. The Minnesota Zoo heads several programs in tiger preservation. We’re a member of the Amur Leopard Conservation Initiative, dedicated to the protection of this rare and beautiful feline. The Zoo works with European zoos to breed these leopards and strengthen their genetic integrity.

Patricia Webb-de la Cadena is an account executive but prefers writing. The New Jersey native resides in the Twin Cities with her husband.