Minn. Zoo Didn't Notify Lawmakers of Dolphin Plans
Officials at the Minnesota Zoo had been considering their decision to end a popular dolphin exhibit several months before the Legislature approved a $4 million bonding request for the zoo that many state lawmakers thought would be used to fix up the dolphin tanks.
The zoo, located south of St. Paul in Apple Valley, announced in May it would close its dolphin exhibit this fall.
Six dolphins have died there since 2006, and the zoo has had trouble replacing them.
The zoo's announcement came days after Gov. Mark Dayton and lawmakers signed off on $4 million in state bonds for the zoo, but Minnesota Public Radio News reported Wednesday that documents show the discussion about ending the exhibit was under way well before that.
"I think they've created a mess that's going to take themselves a while to get out of, simply by not informing people," said state Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, chairman of the House committee that drafted the bonding bill - a $500 million package of state construction projects that included the zoo money.
Howes said he would have reconsidered the zoo money if he'd known the dolphin exhibit was endangered.
"They should have told us. They should have made us more aware," Howes said of zoo officials. He said he visited the zoo twice in the past eight months to discuss their proposal, and zoo officials never told him of their plans. Officials also testified at two legislative committee hearings to discuss the need to refurbish the dolphin tanks.
According to documents obtained by MPR News through the state Data Practices Act, zoo officials started discussing the future of the dolphin exhibit in February - a full month before the House and Senate released their bonding proposals.
Minnesota Zoo CEO Lee Ehmke said he and other zoo lobbyists told staff members in the governor's office and Legislature that the dolphin exhibit might not last. But six key lawmakers said they were not informed the exhibit might be permanently closed.
Ehmke said the zoo should have done a better job of notifying state officials.
"Clearly incomplete communication happened," he said. "I take the personal blame for that. The message did not get to all of the people it needed to in the end."
Ehmke said the zoo plans to use the state money to fix the tanks, but hasn't yet decided what will replace the dolphins. He said stingrays and California sea lions are under consideration.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he wants a legislative hearing on whether the money will be used appropriately.
"We need some assurance," said Bakk, DFL-Cook. "If it's not going to be dolphins, what's it going to be?"
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