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Mall says it will remove wild animal exhibit

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014 11:14 a.m. CST

DES MOINES (AP) — A Des Moines shopping mall will close an exhibit of caged wild animals that drew opposition from the public.

The bears, wolves and other animals will be moved out of the Merle Hay Mall by Oct. 31, according to Elizabeth Holland, the mall’s chief operating officer.

The Academy of Wildlife Education exhibit was met with public backlash in June. An online petition to “stop the zoo” has 74,000 signatures.

Holland said the announcement, which came a month after the newspaper first reported on the controversy, had nothing to do with the petition. She said a $14 million redevelopment project means the mall needs space for bigger storefronts.

Pella Wildlife Co., the nonprofit that operates the academy, has agreed to buy 103 acres on the northwest corner of the junction of Interstate Highway 80 and U.S. Highway 65 near Altoona for a drive-through animal park and wildlife rehabilitation facility that will be called When Iowa Was Wild. Organizers hope to relocate the animals from the mall to the park.

Rita Mason of Des Moines, who in June launched the petition to get the animals out of the mall, said she has no doubt that it helped. People who commented were concerned that the animals were not in habitats that matched their natural environments. She said she feels good that the animals are being moved but is worried what will happen to them in the meantime.

Pella’s chief operating officer, Ron DeArmond, said he hopes he can keep the animals on the land that will become the animal park until it opens next summer.

DeArmond said he’s been working on the project for four years and the petition had nothing to do with it. Visitors will be able to drive through habitats to take photos and video of pronghorn antelope, deer, moose, elk, wolves, cougar, bison and other species native to Iowa. He hopes to raise money for the $20 million project with a crowdfunding campaign that will kick off at the Iowa State Fair.

“Urban wildlife is a big issue,” DeArmond said. “As conflicts with wildlife increase, we need to educate Iowans. If they are aware, the next time a cougar shows up in Iowa, they don’t whack it.”

The nonprofit has 60 days to come up with the money to buy the land.