SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — If the city and Great Plains Zoo were to upgrade the current space of the Delbridge Museum it would cost an estimated $3.4 to $4.2 million but this does not include the mount restoration or updated dioramas and interpretations. It would cost about $13 million to build a new 16,000 square foot facility.

That information was included with a presentation on the Delbridge Museum of Natural History at the Great Plains Zoo at an informational meeting of the Sioux Falls City Council.

After the presentation and before about an hour of public comment, council member Marshall Selberg said the council would take its time on any decisions.

“We’re going to take it slow…,” he said. No decisions could be made at this informational meeting. The council is expected to discuss possible action/options at the Sept. 19 meeting. This was the original target date for the council to act on the surplus recommendation.

The museum was closed by zoo and city officials on Aug. 17 because about 80% of the mounts tested positive for arsenic. The closure was a precaution for safety because the zoo doesn’t not have the needed mitigation in place, officials said.

Zoo and parks and recreation officials including the mayor recommended the collection be declared a surplus and be decommissioned. The council would need to declare the specimens as surplus and they would be decommissioned.

Greg Neitzert, city council member, said he disagrees with the recommendation to declare a surplus and decommission mounts. Neitzert said he’s been in contact with museum taxidermy experts that would not recommend closure or decommission because of arsenic.

“You’d have to close virtually every natural museum in the world,” Neitzert said of using the arsenic as reason to close or remove displays.

Council members David Barranco and Alex Jensen said they supported the zoo’s efforts in general but had some ideas about the possible future of the Delbridge collection.

Jensen said he understands it is an emotional issue. If the city doesn’t declare a surplus, what would be the plan? Jensen said.

Dewitz said she is on hold because the next step is the council’s. She would like consideration to move it so the zoo can use that space.

“I’d like some options on how we move it out,” Jensen said.

There are two competing interests, the zoo has its managerial position and it doesn’t want the collection as part of that, and he understands that, he said. If the city wants, it could store it for a year and use that time to come up with a plan, Jensen said. He believes it will be a decision that the people of Sioux Falls want to make or have input, Jensen said.

A 5013c may want to accept the gift, could have the funding and may be willing to have the insurance that covers the city’s liability, Barranco said. He understands the rationale at not wanting to display the collection at the zoo.

The city needs to see if there is interest. “It’s going to be tough lift,” he said. “I’m not saying that’s going to happen.”

Kearney said if the council declares a surplus, it does not mean disposal or transfer of the collection. It is the first step in determining what to do with the collection, he said. The council would need to take further action after that, Kearney said.

The zoo shouldn’t be taking heat for this, Neitzert said after his initial comments. The collection is owned by the city, he said.

Becky Dewitz, the zoo’s chief executive officer, said the zoo has been involved in long-range planning. As part of that, it evaluated the Delbridge and the announced merger with the butterfly house and aquarium now at Sertoma Park.

The visible deterioration of the museum was obvious to her since she started three years ago, she said.

The aquarium study focused on a space near the front of the zoo campus, Dewitz said. Any planning needs to answer how a merger with the butterfly house and aquarium a good business decision.

Butterfly House and Aquarium CEO Audrey Otto-Pepper said when arsenic was discovered in the Delbridge collection, the focus shifted to considering the implication of that.

The cost of a new building for the Delbridge collection is estimated at about $13 million, Dewitz said.

Neitzert said he doesn’t agree with cost estimates.

Those costs are based on following guidelines for arsenic and the condition of the animals, Dewitz said.

Before the arsenic was detected the zoo had considered re-locating the animals in the best or excellent condition, Dewitz said.

After the tests revealed arsenic, Dewitz said the zoo would need to enclose them in glass and replace the heating and cooling system.

It would cost an estimated $1.9 million to enclose the mounts in glass. It would cost another $1.67 million to upgrade the ventilation system. A new system would filter in and out, she said. The total cost of $3.4 to $4.2 million does not include the restoration of the mounts and other upgrades.

The collection hasn’t had a major update since 1995. “It shows, frankly,” Dewitz said of the years since the last major update.

The estimated $13 million includes $10 million for the construction of a 16,000 square foot facility, the same space as exists now, Dewitz said. The total estimated $13 million does not include restoration of the mounts and upgrades to the display information.

The zoo can’t work with its regular taxidermist because the taxidermist will no longer work on the collection because of the positive tests for arsenic, she said.

John Sweets, the current owner of former West Sioux Hardware building, said during the public comment portion, he’d be interested in bringing the mounts back to the original building. Sweets said there are several large donors interested in helping fund such a move.

The information also said the taxidermy collection was valued at $430,000 in 2022. That was prior to any testing conducted, said Don Kearney, the director of the city’s parks and recreation.

The city issued $1.9 million in bonds for the space for Delbridge back in 1985, Kearney said.

Council member Curt Soehl asked if the zoo and parks and recreation officials considered going the public with a bond for needed work today?

Kearney said zoo and parks officials involved did not consider a public bond for needed work, but that it could be a possibility.

Council member Rich Merkouris said asked about museum traffic over the years.

Photo from city of Sioux Falls.

Dewitz said the zoo doesn’t break down the traffic between the museum and zoo. The museum is not very busy in general, she said. It gets busier during inclement weather. “I’m not seeing it having a strong draw…,” Dewitz said, although it is of important educational value.

A relative of Henry Brockhouse, who killed many of the animals in the Delbridge collection, Barbara Phillips, said the zoo is not the proper place for the Delbridge collection. During the public comment period, she questioned how well the zoo maintained and cared for the mounts.

“We have done regular maintenance of the collection over the years,” Dewitz said her part of the presentation.

There have been 15 visits by a taxidermist since 2009. Maintenance has included $2,500 for a fiberglass patch reconstruction of a giraffe in 2021.

“Despite routine maintenance and care…(there are visible signs of cracking, aging and deterioration,)” Dewitz said.

“Despite the fact we have barriers…people reach over and touch,” Dewitz said of one particular mount.

Photo from city of Sioux Falls.

Kearney said the city wanted to donate the mounts, the state would require it to donate them to an in-state 5013c entity and the collection would need to be stored or displayed in the state.

Soehl also recommended zoo and city officials talk with the Siouxland Heritage Museum.

If the city council declares a surplus by resolution there could be a public vote, city attorney Dave Pfeifle said.

But Neitzert said that would require a set number of thousands of signatures in 25 days which is likely unrealistic.

Public comment limited to five minutes for each person started at 4:11 p.m. Public comments were still happening at 4:39 p.m.

Beverly Bosh, the daughter of Henry Brockhouse, said of the collection, “This your enjoyment, your family’s enjoyment.”

Bosch referred to Neitzert’s comments about how taxidermy experts are willing to fly into Sioux Falls to help. She supports that idea.

C.J. Delbridge bought the Brockhouse collection in 1981. It was donated the city in 1984.

Phillips said it was a sad day when the mounts were sold on auction.

Phillips said the city should not sacrifice history with future growth.

Jason Haack said many of the mounts were done by world-renowned taxidermists. Haak owns Abby Normal’s Museum of the Strange in Harrisburg and is a licensed taxidermist.

Haak said he was willing to restore/repair the mounts at no cost to the city.

Multiple individuals questioned the concern about the arsenic levels and said the zoo and officials are likely overreacting.

If the animals can’t be at the zoo, they need to be placed in another location, an individual said.

Jeff Hugunin, a member of the zoo board, said the decision to close the museum wasn’t done lightly.

Many of those who spoke identified themselves of relatives of Brockhouse.

At least two said they appreciated Selberg’s comment to slow the process down. One of those two relatives urged the city to keep the collection intact.

During his comments, Sweets also complimented Dewitz and her staff on how they’ve handled the complaints in a professional manner.

Selberg said before the presentation that the start of the informational meeting was moved to 3 p.m. to accommodate the interest in the Delbridge museum presentation. Informational meetings usually start at 4 p.m.

GPZ and city officials announced on Aug. 17 the Delbridge museum which includes at least 150 taxidermy specimens from several continents had closed. Officials cited lab results that showed levels of arsenic in the specimens as the major reason for closing the museum. Officials said while there was no immediate safety concern the museum was closed as a precautionary measure. About 80% of the specimens tested positive for arsenic.

Kearney said on Sept. 5 that one consideration was to remove the arsenic free specimens for a different display. Zoo board supported disposition of the collection.

City attorney Dave Pfeifle said in an Aug. 29 news conference there is no determination that exists for a safe level of arsenic.

Arsenic was a common chemical used in taxidermy before 1980. Arsenic is classified as a carcinogen with links to cancer.

The closure has caused significant public discussion including comments from some city council members who question the closure.

Mayor Paul TenHaken chastised city council members who he said added to the misinformation about the specimens.

City council member Pat Starr said in an Aug. 24 story with KELOLAND News that the specimens should not be thrown in the dump.

TenHaken said on Aug. 29 the specimens would not be “treated like a Papa John’s pizza box,” TenHaken said. Information about using a landfill is not true, he said.

The decommission process would include input from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency. There are endangered and threatened species among the specimens.

Only 23 mounts are excellent, arsenic-free and unrestricted by federal law. Only 13 of these mounts are part of the original Brockhouse collection, according to the presentation.