Insect Pollinators – Beyond the Honey Bee Volume 2 – Now Open!

November 18th, 2017

Photo Exhibit Featuring Ultra Close-up Macro Photography to be Displayed at Como

Como Park Zoo and Conservatory proudly presents a stunning photo exhibit by Minneapolis artist Bill Johnson on display in Como’s Exhibit Gallery November 18 through January 21. Over 40 extreme close-up images will highlight the amazing colors, shapes, and diversity of the insect world.

Mr. Johnson specializes in plant and insect photography, from full-specimen to ultra-close-up macro photography.

Mr. Johnson’s images have appeared in over 900 national and regional publications, including nature magazines, gardening books, field guides, and most recently a children’s book to entitled Minnesota Bug Hunt which explore insects, friendly and fierce, that live as close as our own backyard. His photography travels have taken him to a variety of geographic regions nationally and internationally.

The exhibit will be on display November 18 through January 21, 10am – 4pm. Admission is free.

**Media Availability: More images, as well as high resolution images, & additional information about the artwork & artist are available for all television, radio and print requests. Please call 651-487-8294 or e-mail: [email protected] to schedule.


Zookeeper Jill in South Africa with the Balule Conservation Project

November 17th, 2017

As a Conservation Champion, I spent two weeks volunteering with the Balule Conservation Project in South Africa. The Balule Conservation Project  is a conservation management project based in the wilderness of  the Balule Nature reserve in Greater Kruger National Park. The experience was awe inspiring!! I was able to see the wild counterparts of the animals I am lucky to work with as a zookeeper. During my time spent in the bush camp, at least ten rhino were poached in close vicinity of the reserve. The news is heartbreaking and there is little end in sight with the current political climate in South Africa. The volunteers, staff of the Balule Conservation Project and the Black Mambas (the world’s first all-female anti-poaching unit) are an inspiration to those of us who want to change the way the world sees animals and save endangered species. I am so grateful to Como Friends and the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory for supporting my travel and funding the project to let me do a small part in the larger fight for conservation. If you liked to know more, please find me in the giraffe barn hanging with the tall blondes. Enjoy!


October 19, 2017:

Today, I arrived at the Olifants West Gate of the Balule Nature Reserve!! After a quick introduction to the team, we headed straight into the field to hunt and destroy alien vegetation also known as invasive cacti species. Lodges and landowners in the reserve planted ornamental cactus in the past which have spread throughout the reserve, damaging the ecosystem and posing a threat to the native plant species. We recorded the GPS coordinates and method of destruction (biological or chemical) used for the plants we found and later entered the information in a database. The team will use the information to monitor the plants in the future and make sure the spread is stopped.


October 20, 2017:

Field technician Warren and I traveled to Nourish, a local nonprofit organization, who has partnered with Balule Conservation Project by donating hundreds of tree saplings. The tree saplings will be donated to the Bush Baby education program in the community and to the lodges in the reserve when the elephants knock over mature trees. We transported, replanted and watered the saplings from Nourish to the small nursey within Balule.


October 21, 2017:

The morning was spent fixing the fence line which had previously been damaged by elephants. The fence line is very important to the anti-poaching team. It is the first line of defense if a poacher enters the reserve and the last line of defense to keep the animals away from the highway. The fence is electrified and has a number of sensors which send an alert to the monitoring system if disturbed. The Black Mambas, the unarmed anti-poaching unit utilize the fence data, informant information and foot patrols to monitor Balule. They are a mostly women ranger group who have been highly successful protecting the area rhino from poachers.



October 22, 2017:

Sundays are reserved for cleanup and data entry. The volunteers and staff spent the day cleaning the camp, pumping water, preparing for the week and doing a little bit of relaxing.


October 24-25, 2017:

I was lucky to spend two days off on a trip to Kruger National Park with Warren, the awesome camp field technician and fantastic guide. We drove during day light hours for two days and saw tons of animals. I saw my first wild rhino, lots of giraffe and hundreds of elephant. I saw giraffe and zebra hanging out together in the bush and even saw a giraffe taking a nap with her head on her rump – something we didn’t know they did until very recently.


October 26, 2017:

We spent another day maintaining the fence line within the reserve. The service roads were recently graded and the bottom wire of the fence was buried in some places. We spent the day checking the fence and digging the wire up when necessary. Today was well over 100 and this Minnesota girl was HOT!!

October 28, 2017:

We spent the morning searching for snares in the buffer zone. The buffer zone is an area outside of the reserve along the railroad tracks. The buffer zone does have wild animals but is not considered a big five protected area. Because of its proximity to the railroad tracks, it is easy to access for poachers. We spent four hours walking through the bush and found at least 20 snares.

Can you find the set snare in the picture?


October 30 and November 2, 2017:

I was able to participate in a new research project documenting the elephant herds within the reserve. The project is an aerial demographic survey of the elephant herds. The goal was to determine how many elephants were in each herd, the location (GPS) of the herd and the age and sex of the individual elephants. To obtain the data, I was able to do a ride along with a nonprofit organization called Flying 4 Rhino and Conservation. Flying 4 Rhino and Conservation provides aerial support over conservation areas that house rhino. We flew in a small South African plane called a Bat Hawk. Rob, the pilot, and I flew two separate days at dusk. I took as many pictures as possible while Rob checked the reserve fence lines and investigated vehicles within the park. The data will supplement the data acquired during the game count census and will aid the warden in deciding the carrying capacity for the reserve.

November 1-3, 2017:

My favorite part of my trip had to be the days spent tracking rhinos and monitoring the camera traps. Balule Nature Reserve is home to approximately 60-75 rhinos of both African species – black and white. A few years back, 20 black rhino were transported into the reserve as part of a rhino range expansion program. To maintain the program, the rhinos are tracked and monitored weekly. Our days began early as we set out to look for rhino evidence at the watering holes, known middens (rhino toilets) and to retrieve the camera trap memory cards. During the day, we observed a number of species that call Balule home including giraffe, greater kudu and zebra. I even saw an adult giraffe taking a snooze in the shade of a large tree!

The first two days we saw a lot of rhino evidence in tracks and middens but didn’t see a rhino in the field. Finally at the end of the third day we came across a white rhino cow and her calf relaxing under a tree!! The female was not in the database of known animals in the area which was good news, she most likely moved in from a nearby reserve and will hopefully call Balule her home. During the afternoon, we combed through the camera trap data to monitor the rhino and elephants using the watering holes as well as documenting which other species were caught on camera. The camera traps are set up at watering holes within the reserve. They are triggered by movement and have night vision. These are used to monitor which species are using the watering holes and used to monitor the usually reclusive black rhinos in the reserve. Thanks for reading about my adventures! – Zookeeper Jill


Zookeeper Adam in Namibia with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation

November 7th, 2017

I arrived in Windhoek, Namibia late on September 15.  Windhoek is the capital of Namibia.  Today, I met Emma Hart from the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and the rest of our team.  After packing our equipment we set off for our 10 day trip into the field.  From Windhoek it is a 2 day drive northward to reach the study site.   On the way we spotted lots of amazing animals including our first giraffe!

We arrived at the study site, setup camp and met Dr. Julian Fennesy (Co-Founder and President of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation).  The Giraffe Conservation Foundation is a leader in giraffe conservation and research. One of the major goals of this trip was to fit seven giraffe throughout the study area with solar powered GPS satellite tracking units.  Over the next few days we immobilized seven giraffe and got all of the transmitters mounted.  In the short time it took to get the GPS units fitted we also collected other important data such as body measurements, tail hair, and DNA samples.

Last night my tent mate and I where awoken in the middle of the night to the sound of branches breaking in the tree above our tent.  This was followed by the sound of chewing and footsteps all around our tent.  Elephants!  In the morning we discovered that elephants had visited our camp and had stopped for a midnight snack from the tree above our tent.  In this photo you can see an elephant’s footprint about a foot from the door flap of my tent.  This was the start of a day full of elephants!

The second half of this trip was spent collected data on the rest of the giraffe in the study area.  During this trip we identified 145 different giraffe.  We collected data on the type of trees they were feeding on, herd size, and GPS coordinates of their location.  The data collected on the trip will help to answer many questions about the giraffe’s natural behavior.  With this information, we will be able to make more informed and productive conservation and management decisions to help stop the giraffe’s declining population and secure the future of these amazing animals. Thanks to Como Friends for funding my trip! – Zookeeper Adam

More information on the Giraffe Conservation Foundation can be found at:


Keep Como Thriving!

September 4th, 2017

Many things will change in the years to come, but one thing will remain the same with supporters like you, Como Zoo and the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory will thrive and remain a world class destination. Make a gift today so future generations can enjoy for years to come!


A Conversation with Our Campus Manager

August 26th, 2017

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.”

By Grayson Ponti