This is a paid piece from the Great Plains Zoo.

Simplified: The Great Plains Zoo is making waves in Pierre with its elaborate display at the annual Christmas at the Capitol event. Here's more on what went into decorating the 30-foot tree.

Why it matters

  • The State of South Dakota invited the zoo to decorate the Capitol's South Dakota tree in recognition and celebration of the zoo's 60th anniversary this year. It's a big anniversary for the zoo, and 2023 is also the year that brought the merger with the Butterfly House and Aquarium.
  • Nearly all of the components decorating the large tree were created by zoo and butterfly house staff, and most of them were made from recycled materials as part of the organization's commitment to sustainability.
  • Since 60 is the "diamond" anniversary, the tree is mainly decorated with bright white sparkles and blue accents. All told, there are more than 200 ornaments, including animal footprints, butterflies and hand-painted orbs.
"We know that this tree and this event means a lot to people across our state, and people travel from all corners to see the display," PR and Marketing Director Denise DePaolo said "Being able to decorate that centerpiece is humbling. It's also really exciting and we are up to the challenge."

Give me all the details

Let's start at the top. The tree topper, carved from a block of foam, is an African lion representing the zoo's efforts to bring lions back to the Sioux Falls zoo in 2024.

Here's a breakdown of the ornaments:

  • The tree has 40 animal cutouts made from recycled coroplast signs, including a sea cucumber as the "pickle" for those who play the "find the pickle in the tree and you'll have good luck" game.
  • There are also 10 orbs with hand-painted aquatic scenes to represent the Butterfly House and Aquarium.
  • Zookeepers also collected 37 animal footprints, much like the handprint ornaments your kids bring home from elementary school. Footprints came from animals including the rhino, wallaroo, big horn sheep, rats and more.
  • In addition to handmade ornaments, the tree also features four wreaths made out of the number 60, and 60 blue morpho butterflies – one of the most recognizable features in the butterfly house.

At the foot of the tree is a tree skirt handmade by a zoo volunteer.

  • Its blue and white sparkles are meant to represent rippling water with undertones shaped in a star to look both like a sea anemone but also the shape of the sun in the South Dakota state flag.
"We want to make sure when people think of the zoo, they think of all of the people and animals it takes to bring that educational discovery to South Dakota," DePaolo said. "We are proud to be the largest zoo in the state."

How can I see it?

The zoo-themed tree will be on display in the Capitol for the entire holiday season from Nov. 21 to Dec. 26, including Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Visit daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. More details here.