New Habitats for a New Century: A Conversation with Becky Dewitz, Director of the Roosevelt Park Zoo

Previously an educator at the zoo, Becky Dewitz became Director of the Roosevelt Park Zoo in Minot, North Dakota in 2016. Since that time, she has helped the zoo reorganize and evolve with modern standards and goals. Currently, the Roosevelt Park Zoo is undergoing a capital campaign to celebrate its centennial in 2021. It will feature new, modern habitats for lions, tigers, snow leopards and Amur leopards. Here is her story.

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

Prior to moving to Minot in 2005, Becky Dewitz’s background was in business and education. She started as an educator at the Roosevelt Park Zoo in the spring of 2006. “When they were hiring for an educator, it was a dual role,” Dewitz recalled. “I did zoo operations and guests services during the spring, summer and fall while I did a lot more work with public schools in the winter.” At the time, the institution was at a smaller scope. “The zoo didn’t have as many staff,” Dewitz noted. “We’ve grown significantly in budget and staffing.”

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

In 2011, the Roosevelt Park Zoo was significantly impacted by a flood. While fortunately no animals were hurt, it caused serious damage. “The zoo is dissected into two sections by a river and the flood brought the zoo five to eight feet under water,” Dewitz remembered. “I stepped down from my educator role as my husband and I moved 60 miles away from Minot. I joined the zoo’s nonprofit society and did that for three years.” However, after doing development consulting, Dewitz came back to the zoo as director in 2016.

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

At the time, the Roosevelt Park Zoo was still recovering from the flood. “We were still coming off of flood recovery as we had 40 buildings and structures impacted,” Dewitz explained. “Many people were flooded at home as well as at the zoo, which was pretty stressful.” One of the new leader’s first tasks was to get the zoo reaccredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “We were going through our AZA accreditation cycle and we got it reaccredited,” Dewitz said. “I paid attention to aesthetics and cleanliness; if your bathrooms look dirty, people will think your animal enclosures are dirty. I worked on a robust risk and safety management plan as that’s an area our previous director hadn’t been able to update. That was very well received by AZA and we got praised for how thorough it was.”

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

Soon after, Dewitz brought a number of other changes to the zoo. “I changed a lot of things organizationally,” she elaborated. “We have a public programs manager and full-time educator now, dividing my former role into two positions. We also added more zookeeper positions as the keepers were overworked and added a full-time veterinarian.”

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

Dewitz’s familiarity with the zoo helped make the transition easier, especially in terms of gaining trust. “It certainly helped that I was not a new face for our park district,” she remarked. “They know I’m very diligent in making sure we spend our dollars judiciously. It’s extremely important we spend every penny of our tax dollars appropriately. [The park district] had a lot of confidence I had justifications to increase our salaries and budget. I received a grant for our full-time educator that let us build our education program to be self-sustaining. Education is paramount to our mission but we need to make it sustainable.”

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

A number of exhibit changes were made, most significantly the addition of okapi to the Roosevelt Park Zoo. “I knew that was a pipedream of mine as I loved okapi,” Dewitz stated. “We reached out to AZA, said we had a large home for okapi and they selected one older male who was a retired breed. We can take the niche of providing the best home for [older males.] We converted our sika deer exhibit [into one for okapi] and renovated the indoor space to be heated and have lots of textured concrete for their hooves. We have dimmers to make it a dark home and painted everything to look like a forest [to be as] naturalized as possible. 80% of that indoor space is animal space.”

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

The Roosevelt Park Zoo has also become a participant in the black-footed ferret breeding program, a species that zoos have brought back from extinction. “We’re the 22nd zoo to have them,” Dewitz noted. “We turned out Discovery Barn area into Discover Dakota with black-footed ferrets, burrowing owls, hognose and bull snakes, a live beehive and a pollinator garden. We’re working on adding an exhibit there for prairie dogs.”

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

The Children’s Zoo has been revamped as well. “We added a goat bridge and external pens to our children’s barn,” Dewitz remarked. “We have a lot of little goats in a large space where they walk over guests. We’re increasing our volunteer program to add animal encounters with our goats. We had an Eagle Scout take our prairie house and turn it into a Three Bears playhouse for children. We’re going to mount borrow books in our Children’s Zoo this spring.”

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

A number of other projects are in the works for the near future as well. “Our otter exhibit got damaged by the flood as the pipes were destroyed,” Dewitz noted. “We’re looking to have it work again this spring and turn the waterfalls on. we’re also working on a new barn for our bison and camels as our bison barn is from the 1970s. we’ll move the camels over there and have them next to [the bison.]”

@ Detroit Zoo

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

Staff development has been a major focus of Dewitz. “I’m sending three staff members to AZA midyear- our curator and two of our keepers,” she mentioned. “We’ve revamped our conservation efforts and are sending one of our keepers to Africa.” The Roosevelt Park sends small grants to a handful of global conservation organizations and participates in local efforts. “We go down to South Dakota and spotlight for ferrets,” Dewitz said. “We found three ferrets born in the wild, which means the conservation efforts [by zoos on black footed ferrets] are working. We also do a lot with Frog Watch. We don’t want to limit ourselves in terms of conservation and we’re working towards 3% of our budget going to conservation.”

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

Currently, the Roosevelt Park Zoo is embarking on its first ever capital campaign. “Our cat complex is from 1975 and looks it,” Dewitz articulated. “It’s old and has a lot of concrete and chain-link. We launched our first capital campaign to completely change that. We’re building brand-new habitats for Amur tigers and African lions and renovating our cat complex for Amur and snow leopards. We’re looking at a $5 million investment and we’ve raised $3.1 million so far. We’ve never done this or asked or community to rally behind us before. We’re aggressive with our goals and plan to break ground this spring, which is very exciting.”

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

Unlike the current Cat Complex, the new habitats will be modern and well-tailored for the wellbeing of the animals. “The tiger habitat will be very modern,” Dewitz explained. We’re going to have one main building with three yards, glass viewing and overhead tunnels. Hopefully, we’ll be able to afford mesh. There will be a conservation education area and a day room for older tigers and cubs so they have a comfortable space. We will be asking the SSP to allow us to get a breeding pair and will have a lot of flexibility to manage them.”

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

“Lions will have one large yard as they’re social and a very large day room for the winter,” Dewitz continued. “We’re going to incorporate hot rocks so they can maximize their time outside. We’re going to have a lot of features that prompt inquisitive exciting visitor experiences. Kids will be able to crawl and have a peck at the lions through a safari vehicle. When we get to the leopards, we’ll make it like a mountain with lots of vertical space and rocks. We’re looking at species specific environments that are enriching and let them exhibit natural behavior. That’s paramount in all our exhibit design.”

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

Dewitz acknowledged her knowledge of zoos and zoo operations is constantly growing. “I’m constantly learning,” she elaborated. “I’m fortunate to have ten years [worth of] experience in the zoo business and zoo friends. When I have a question, I can reach out to them. I’ve been working with AZA to build the best things I can. We want to be as modern as possible.” She stressed she works hard to make the zoo the best we can be. “We try to naturalize and soften exhibits and have a very robust training program,” Dewitz stated. “Our keepers are challenged to do three training demos every day. Keepers are the rock stars of the zoo industry so why not put them front and center.”

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

“It helps that I’m the mom of two children and look at the zoo through their eyes a lot [in terms of] accessibility, safety and what sparks curiosity in a child,” Dewitz remarked. “WE do a lot for senior citizens in our area as they have come here their whole lives. We provide a nice, accessible and safe environment for them. We also do a lot of volunteer programs for people with special needs. They gain confidence in their own selves by having that job and we’re very happy to provide it.”

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

“[As zoos go into the future,] it’s critical we keep the education component,” Dewitz reflected. “Kids don’t grow up on farms like they used to even in North Dakota. It’s so important to engage people with wildlife and give them a reason to appreciate species. We need to show them how majestic tigers are.”

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

“I’m very proud of taking our zoo into the next century,” Becky Dewitz concluded. “We celebrate our centennial in 2021 and we will have three major new developments open. I’m proud of how we’ve streamlined our organization. I want our staff to appreciate coming to work every day as it’s a unique opportunity to work with these species. This is the community’s zoo, not just our zoo, so we have a responsibility to give them the best zoo [we can] in our capacity.”

@ Roosevelt Park Zoo

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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© 2017 by Grayson Ponti