Como Park Zoo is located on 14.5 acres in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Despite its small size, its free admission and quality have led to it receiving over two million visitors annually. Some of its highlights include Polar Bear Odyssey (a world class facility for the lords of the Arctic), Gorilla Forest (the largest mesh covered facility for the apes in the nation) and the conservatory next door. The zoo is run by Michelle Furrer, who has been responsible for much of the zoo’s growth and success over the last decade. Here is her story.
Before coming to the Como Park Zoo, Furrer’s background was in marketing and public relations. She had worked as director of marketing at the Underwater Adventures aquarium at the Mall of America in Minneapolis for many years. This made her the ideal choice for the zoo’s first ever public relations position. “I was the first person in Como Park Zoo history to do that work,” Furrer explained. “Before the curator or another member of the staff would just write things for the local paper. Zoos haven’t always done a horribly great job of telling their story. So much of the work is behind the scenes but you need someone to tell their stories. You need to help the public understand all the facets that go on at a zoo. The Como Park Zoo had decided they need someone to do that and when I started it was tackling getting the staff to start talking about what they’re doing.”
The Como Park Zoo also manages the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory next door. When Furrer came to the zoo, the zoo and conservatory collaborated for the first time on a project: Tropical Encounters. “Tropical Encounters is a neotropical rainforest with both animals and plants,” she remarked. “The conservatory is a full sized botanical garden. This was the first time our zoo keepers and the conservatory’s horticulturalists worked directly on one habitat. In Tropical Encounters, we have 62 free flying birds from South America, a sloth, poison dart frogs, pacus, an anaconda and leaf cutting ants. We have an indigenous farmers area with a lot of different plants. The theme is a researcher working in the rainforest coming to understand the connection between the animals and plants that live there.”
Less than two years after coming to the Zoo, Michelle Furrer ended up becoming the Zoo’s director. “Saint Paul’s parks director retired and the zoo director was offered to take his position,” she remembered. “Now that the director position was opened they decided I was the one who would take the role. Nowhere along the way did I think I’d be in this seat.” From the very beginning, Furrer was determined to take the zoo to the next level and she has been responsible for greatly increasing the quality, reputation and experience of the zoo. “We’ve really elevated the experience for the guest,” she reflected. “There are state of the art habitats which are great for animals and people.”
At this time, the zoo had just begun its capital campaign for its biggest project ever: Polar Bear Odyssey. Regarded as one of the best polar bear habitats in America, it recreates their natural habitat and is seven times larger than their old space. “The land where Polar Bear Odyssey is now had been concrete grottos for polar bears and a number of other bear species who had been decommissioned over the years,” Furrer elaborated. “We transformed them into the new habitat. The new space has the flexibility to be broken into two yards- one that recreates the Arctic tundra with a dig pit and a small pool and another with a deep pool and a mesh wall for behavioral training.”
While Polar Bear Odyssey opened in 2010, planning started years before. “The project was funded partially through the state of Minnesota while the rest came from our capital campaign,” Furrer explained. While it was an expensive project, the results were marvelous. “There are a number of opportunities for the bears here,” stated Furrer. “We do operant conditioning training with the polar bears as we do with all our animals. We have a lot of opportunities for natural and keeper-made enrichment. We also have a maternal den and can control the heights of the shallow pool if we have cubs.”
Due to its immense space, the polar bear habitat has had its share of guests since its opening. “We took in grizzly and polar bears from the zoos in Minot and Duluth before they went to other places,” Furrer added. “As the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison was building their habitat, we took their two cubs so we’ve had our fair share of bear guests.” At the moment, the Como Park Zoo has twin brothers enjoying the space.
Polar Bear Odyssey was carefully designed to be the best polar bear habitat it could be. “We engaged with conservation folks from Manitoba for the exhibit to give the best we could for the bears and the public,” Furrer commented. “A big focus when we were building it was on putting the animal care in the public eye. We do a daily program (twice during weekends) where we not only do polar bear behavioral training and enrichment but we also have someone give a talk about polar bears, their care and conservation. The whole idea is to bring behind the scenes husbandry out in front of the public so they can see the care we give it and interpret it.”
Additionally, the zoo is active in polar bear conservation. “One of the programs we work with is Polar Bear International,” Furrer said. “Some of our staff go up to Churchill and study polar bears in the Tundra. We have keepers who led programs about polar bears to the visitors of Churchill. It’s beneficial for the people there to hear from someone who works with polar bears every single day.”
Furrer stressed the zoo focuses on quality over quantity and wants to provide the best situations for the animals they already have than focus on expanding the zoo’s variety. “We’re really landlocked and we decided to focus on certain species and doing them very well,” she explained. “It’s about doing what we do better and creating a multifunctional habitat with the best, most modern animal practices.” Despite being small, the zoo houses a number of popular animals including giraffes, zebras, lions, tigers, polar bears, gorillas, orangutans, bison, seals, sea lions, snow leopards and wolves.
The next project after Polar Bear Odyssey was Gorilla Forest, the nation’s largest mesh-covered habitat for gorillas and a major upgrade of the zoo’s facilities for the apes. “Gorilla Forest was the second priority project,” Furrer elaborated. “Our community seeing the progress with our zoo created momentum. Gorilla Forest was fully funded through the state. We engaged members of the zoo community about the best features and practices for gorillas. We have had these apes for over fifty years. Many male gorillas used to be kept in isolation so decades ago we became one of the first zoos to put them in a bachelor social environment, which worked really well. As we looked at Gorilla Forest we wanted to bring in a family group of gorillas as well. We had hand raises babies in the past but we wanted to be able to breed them for the first time.”
The Como Park Zoo began carefully putting together groups of gorillas for the new exhibit. “One of our bachelor males was identified to be genetically viable so we brought in three females for him to be the silverback of,” Furrer recalled. “We got a bachelor group as well. We had to do all the introductions of the gorillas and we have had a successful birth of a gorilla. We have another birth coming this fall.”
“Gorilla Forest has two outdoor yards and a dayroom so the family can stay together when they can’t go outside,” Furrer said. “What we wanted is to have an area where they could have a nice space for the winters. We have technical skylights which bring in as much light as we can. We have a training area and a number of opportunities for enrichment. One of our challenges was we have limited space so we needed to make the most of it. We found using mesh would take away the space of having a moat. It’s a very hilly space so the gorillas have the opportunity to look at us from above. We like to give the animals plenty of opportunities to stay stimulated and encourage mental and physical stimulation.”
The Como Park Zoo’s next major project will be a new area for seals and sea lions. One of the biggest icons at the zoo is Sparky the sea lion, a name handed down for generations. “Sparky the sea lion has been a tradition at the zoo for over 60 years and we just received funding for our new seal/sea lion habitat,” Furrer said. “We will be opening it in 2019. Sparky for us is our ambassador for conservation. Not only is there a daily presentation but the message is all about conservation.”
“We will have seating capacity of over 1200 in the new sea lion arena,” elaborated Furrer. “We’re going to demolish the current WPA exhibit space and the new habitat will have more natural substrate and a lot more rocks and shade. It will have a deck for amenities so guests can eat while watching the sea lions. There will also be underwater viewing and more indoor space for the pinnipeds.” The zoo is also planning in developing breeding programs for the sea lions.
After the pinniped area is built, the zoo is looking into building new spaces for orangutans and flamingos. The zoo is an active participant in conservation for the red apes. “One of our staff members is the international studbook keeper for orangutans,” remarked Furrer. “She goes to Indonesia to help scientists working on records. We will build them a more modern space at the zoo and are looking into getting a separate group of them.” The zoo also wants to get another cold hardy species that can be outdoors year round. “Most visitors want to come when it’s nice out so we think ‘How can we encourage them to come during colder season?’” Furrer said.
The Como Park Zoo has a strong focus on animal welfare. “We have a connection with the vet staff at the University of Minnesota,” Furrer explained. “Our vet on staff will frequently bring colleagues from the university with her. On our husbandry side we do daily enrichment and operant conditioning with our animals. Both of those provide mental stimulation and encourage natural behaviors. Those are key when building new facilities.”
Much has changed in the years Michelle Furrer has been in charge of the zoo. “What has changed over the last decade is the interpretation program,” she elaborated. “Our staff used to just do the practical side and say don’t go on this path but now they’re trained to talk about the animals and how Como takes care of them. We have a whole new visitor and interpretive department whose message is all about conservation. We do a number of daily programs we did not do a decade ago. We do giraffe feeding and a number of keeper and garden talks. Our interpretive program began about five years ago.”
“We just finished an update on our education and conservation strategic plan,” Furrer explained. “Since we’ve been in a growth period for several years, we need to look at everything we’re doing. What we came up with is everyone owns a part in conservation. We came up with Conservation Champions, which gives our staff opportunities to do field research. Some will be working with African penguins, another will be helping gorillas with the AZA SAFE program, someone else will be doing giraffes and another will be doing rhinos, which we don’t even have at our zoo. we’ve participate in amphibian programs and have a turtle conservation program that tracks local turtles and their movements. We’re also looking at our youth engagement program where we’re trying to steward our next generation of conservationists.”
Initiatives like Conservation Champions and the youth engagement program are funded by Como Friends, which raises funds for the zoo and gives them resources to start programs. Furrer has greatly helped the zoo’s financial situation as she has “been able to expand our program by about $3 million.” She takes pride in giving the zoo’s visitors, many of them from out of the local area, a great experience. “If they love nature, they can come into the zoo, stay for two hours and check out the conservatory,” Furrer said. “Since we don’t charge admission, they can come back later.”