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Zoo Exhibit Eyes Farming Reality

July 6, 2000

APPLE VALLEY, Minn. (AP) _ The Minnesota Zoo’s newest exhibit introduces visitors to the harsh realities of family farming, complete with cloned animals, cattle locked up in tiny pens and the inevitable end, the slaughterhouse.

The $4.3 million Wells Fargo Family Farm is aimed toward reintroducing Minnesotans to farming _ and to the controversial issues that sometimes surround it.

``Without doubt, people are going to be upset with some of what they see,″ said Jim Streater, who is in charge of the zoo’s biological programs.

That’s intentional.

When the Children’s Zoo closed in 1994, plans to construct an idyllic ``Old MacDonald″ farm with child-friendly animals gradually matured to a more realistic portrayal of farming, Streater said.

``In Old MacDonald’s farm nothing ever dies,″ he said. ``Real farming is about birth, nurtured life and death.″

So along with friendly goats that children have fed at the zoo’s ``My Backyard″ exhibit for years, the zoo farm will feature rare breeds, cutting-edge technology and a large dose of reality.

By letting visitors see a sow restrained to a constricting farrowing pen and cloned heifers racing each other across open fields, zoo officials hope agricultural issues will become less abstract to many Minnesotans long divorced from the land.

``We often take for granted the things that used to be most familiar,″ said Lars Erdahl, who directs the zoo’s education programs. ``What we’re trying to do is not advocate for a certain position, but show people what our source of food is.″

When zoo officials met with Twin Cities-area schoolchildren several years ago while planning the farm, they found many had a ``grocery-store mentality,″ and didn’t connect neatly packaged foods with farm animals like calves or chicks.

``This is our first opportunity to talk about death at the zoo,″ said Kim Thomas, who managed the zoo farm project.

Many animals born and raised at the zoo farm will be sold to slaughterhouses. And with displays in every barn and pen that show what products come from each animal, the reality of a working farm will not be hidden from visitors.

Of course, accommodating 1 million visitors annually has required concessions.

To keep the exhibit aromatic, some of agriculture’s traditional byproducts will be carefully monitored.

``When poop hits the ground, somebody shovels it right up,″ Streater said. Until the zoo builds an onsite composting facility for the farm, a dump truck full of manure will be hauled out of the farm daily.

For understanding day-to-day reality and how vast those amber waves of grain are, nothing beats a true family farm, said Al Withers, a state employee who helps teachers find ways to teach their students about agriculture. Hundreds of such farms have opened to visitors in the last decade, but the zoo’s farm is still needed, Withers said: ``They’ll reach a million people that I can’t reach.″

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