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ZooMontana reflects on journey from financial failure to Top 10 zoo

ZooMontana
Posted at 2:03 PM, Mar 18, 2024

BILLINGS - After earning a spot on USA Today's top 10 zoos in America, ZooMontana is celebrating by taking a look back at the long-winding journey it's been.

The list, which was originally released on March 13, is based on the zoo's dedication to exceptional animal care, visitor education, immaculate grounds and conservation efforts. ZooMontana was selected as a top 20 zoo, and then earned enough votes to be listed at the tenth spot.

"We feel very humbled," ZooMontana Director Jeff Ewelt said. "When we took over here, things were bad and I think a lot of people remember that. It's been a lot of work getting to this point."

Ewelt took over the zoo about nine years ago. At that time, ZooMontana was experiencing severe budget shortfalls and almost couldn't recover.

"I don't think people realize just how close we were to losing the zoo completely," Ewelt said. "It was a drain and it's been a long and hard road back."

But today, ZooMontana is almost unrecognizable from what it was then.

Click here to watch the TDS Fiber Zoo Cams live stream.

"They have beautiful grounds, great animals, and a wonderful playground," said zoo visitor Lee Walker on Sunday afternoon. "All around, it's a great place to come and spend the day."

Walker lives in Red Lodge, but grew up in Billings. She has the family season pass and said they visit a couple of times each month.

"As a kid, I remember the zoo and there weren't nearly as many animals," Walker recalled. "The tigers were the big draw. Now, to see all these changes has been really awesome."

Walker said she's glad the zoo was able to be rescued years ago, but was even more impressed with what it has become.

"I'm really glad they saved the zoo and what they've done with it," Walker said. "I think it's a really important part of the Billings community."

Ewelt's extensive work consisted of more community outreach. He has appeared hundreds of times on Q2's morning show and even had a featured segment called Jeff-ari's Safari. All were in efforts he said to bring the zoo back into the eyes of the public.

"We do what we do for two reasons," Ewelt said. "One, the animals, obviously they are our number one priority. The second one is the community of Billings. We want to provide something they can be proud of."

It's clear that mission in the community has been successful. Ewelt said that without the support of Billings and all Montanans, he doesn't believe they could've received enough votes to crack the top 10.

"If there's one thing Billings does really well, it's show up big for some national votes," Ewelt said. "They've done this before and we're just fortunate to be the most recent ones to benefit from it."

And while Ewelt is proud of the progress, he said they don't plan on getting complacent, knowing there's even more work to be done.

"I get emotional every day about this," Ewelt said. "I sit back and reflect on some of the things we've been through to get to this point. It's been quite the journey, but I'm a mindset of moving forward guy, and that's what we're going to do."