Momentum builds for capital campaign at Blank Park Zoo

Big cats will soon have a bigger place to call home at Blank Park Zoo. In this rendering, note the tiger on the catwalk. (Image: Blank Park Zoo)

By Steve Dinnen

As far as Kevin Prust can recall, Marjorie Foster never had a house pet beyond a bird — a parakeet, maybe — but “she was an animal lover from the day I knew her.”

Prust serves as a personal representative of Foster and helped guide her to becoming one of the top contributors to Blank Park Zoo’s current capital campaign. “Expand the Impact,” budgeted for $18 million, calls for the largest expansion and renovation project in the zoo’s nearly 60-year history.

The first phase of the campaign began before its public announcement, on April 8, and by then, more than half of the money already had been collected or pledged.

Design work is underway on two of the campaign’s prominent features, areas for “Wild Iowa” and big cats. The Ruan Foundation was a major contributor to Wild Iowa, which will feature a new facility for the seals and sea lions and a glass tunnel so visitors can get a better look at the frolicking otters. The Marjorie A. Foster Lion Center will triple the pride’s habitat, with vertical climbing structures, winter accommodations and a facility to support breeding.

Both Foster and her late husband, Holmes, a prominent banker and superintendent of the Iowa Division of Banking, have been longtime benefactors of the zoo and provided funds years ago for what is now the Holmes Foster Event Center. Prust said the couple believed in doing something with their money while they were still around to see it enhance the community.

“The quicker you get something in place, the greater the impact,” Prust said. That pace quickened after the Fosters´ first visit to the zoo, when Prust watched as Holmes Foster, perhaps fresh off a bank meeting and still wearing a suit and tie, happily fed a giraffe. As Prust put it, “He was the most dressed up animal feeder I’ve ever seen.”

There’s no dress code, of course, for visitors or other donors the zoo is hoping to attract in sufficient numbers to break ground on both the Wild Iowa and big cat areas as soon as fundraising wraps up.

Blank Park Zoo is named after longtime community benefactor A.H. Blank, who got the ball rolling for a children’s zoo in 1963 with a donation of $150,000. In 2005, his son, Myron Blank, gave the zoo $5 million, the largest gift in its history. The zoo outgrew its “children’s zoo” format following a 1983-1985 refurbishment, and these days it annually attracts more than half a million visitors from across the state

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