Max, Pooh, Winnie and Piglet appeared on cue Thursday as the grizzly bear exhibit opened at the Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo.
The Great Bend Chamber of Commerce held a ribbon cutting Thursday in anticipation of Saturday’s grand opening of the exhibit. The first 150 kids through the doors when the zoo opens at 9 a.m. Saturday will get a free stuffed bear. The celebration will continue all day until the doors close at 4:30 p.m.
The project triples the size of the old grizzly bear exhibit, with added features for the bears to explore. There are climbing areas, a stream with pools, a ball hanging from a zip line, and a den. One of the most exciting features for the public is the viewing area on the west side of the exhibit, that allows people to see the bears up close through a Plexiglas window. The big pool is just inches away from the viewing area. During Thursday’s sneak peek, children shrieked with glee as Max, the oldest grizzly at the zoo, splashed water in their direction as Piglet ran by them.
The exhibit is electrified inside to keep bears from charging at the fences, and a new wooden fence around the exterior keeps humans at a safe distance.
Dozens of people attended the ribbon cutting, but at the center were four key players who helped bring this project to fruition: Sara Hamlin, zoo supervisor and curator; Katherine Opie, director of the Dorothy M. Morrison Foundation; former City Administrator Howard Partington; and Scott Keeler, director of public lands.
“I’m so grateful to people we’ve worked with along the way,” Hamlin said. “It’s a huge turning point for our zoo to have such a spectacular exhibit.”
Partington said Opie “is probably one of the best friends of Great Bend from three and a half hours away that you’ll ever meet.” She has been involved in the project from the start, making this a stellar example of a public-private partnership.
Partington said Great Bend’s zoo is now a destination attraction. “This rivals what they have in Garden City,” he said.
Opie said the Morrison Foundation’s involvement in improving the zoo will continue. The original grant also included funds to bring a bison exhibit back to the “North American” section of the zoo.
“We could not be more thrilled with how this all turned out,” Opie said. “We hope to continue to do a little more expansion here in North America.”
Max has lived at the Great Bend zoo for 28 or 29 years, Hamlin said. He came from the edge of Yellowstone National Park, where he had killed cattle three times. Zoo life saved him from extermination.
“This will be the third exhibit he’s lived in” at the zoo, she said.
Winnie, and her brothers Pooh and Piglet, came to the zoo in 2014 and are now 5 years old. “They keep Max young and spry,” Hamlin said.