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: https://giraffeconservation.org/.


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


Como Zoo Releases One of North America’s Most Critically Endangered Amphibians Back into the Wild

July 9th, 2017

A toad’ally awesome thing is happened at Como Zoo. As part of Como Zoo’s behind-the-scenes species preservation efforts, over 1,175 Wyoming Toad tadpoles were placed in oxygenated water, shipped overnight and were released near the Mortenson Lake National Wildlife Refuge outside Laramie, Wyoming. This 1.5 ounce toad is classified as one of the four critically endangered amphibians found in North America and one of the rarest in the world.

Native to the Laramie Basin in Wyoming, this toad was placed on the endangered species list in 1984, and was feared to be extinct. Researchers located the last surviving toads near Lake Mortenson in the late eighties, and by 1996 began an aggressive species preservation plan to save the toad. Como Zoo has joined forces with eight other zoos as a partner in a captive breeding program that now reintroduces Wyoming tadpoles and toads to the wild every year.

As part of the project, Como received adult Wyoming toads that now live in a specially retrofitted room in Como’s Animal Support Building. “The Wyoming toads play an important part in Como’s mission. Since these projects usually go on behind the scenes, people are often surprised to hear how involved Como Zoo is in species preservation,” says Michelle Furrer, Como Campus Director. “But Como Zoo, along with many other zoos, are always striving to make a difference in conservation.’’

To be eligible to participate in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) each institution must meet certain criteria. The four criteria relevant to preventive medicine husbandry and space allotment include the following:

1) Candidate must isolate Wyoming toads from other amphibians in the collection through designated biosecure housing and quarantine.
2) Candidate must commit space for at least four age cohorts totaling 20-40 toads, breeding transfers and pre-release tadpole holding.
3) Candidate must receive USFWS Endangered Species permit to acquire the federally listed toad prior to participation in the SSP.
4) Candidate must comply with the service and SSP guidelines for the recovery program.

A Como zookeeper will be traveling to Laramie WY for a week of hands-on field research. She will also meet with 10 other institutions at the annual Species Protection Plan meeting for the Wyoming toad to discuss the husbandry and goals of the recovery team for the survival of the species.

It’s a privilege for an institution to be able to participate in species recovery efforts. It comes with much responsibility, and often an additional investment in resources including additional staff and/or construction of biosecure facilities. A generous grant from the Frog Crossing Foundation allowed Como Friends, the nonprofit partner of Como Park Zoo & Conservatory, to provide the retrofitting necessary to give Como Zoo’s new Wyoming toads the optimal environmental controls, a hibernation chamber critical to stimulate the toads’ reproductive cycle, and additional AZA staff training to help ensure the success of this species preservation project.


Como Spotlight: Zookeeper Lauren, Marine Animal Keeper

May 30th, 2017

What is your job title at Como and how long have you been in this role?

I have been a Marine Animal Zookeeper at Como Zoo for two years and have worked in animal care roles at zoos and aquariums for the past five years. At Como Zoo I work with a team of zookeepers who care for the harbor seals, California sea lions, polar bears, penguins and puffins.

What has been the most rewarding part of being in these roles?

The most rewarding part of working in animal care for a zoo or aquarium is providing the best care for the animals that call Como Zoo “home”. As zookeepers we are constantly working on new ways to enrich the lives of the animals in our care. We confer with colleagues at other zoos and aquariums and attend workshops and conferences to keep current on the best practices of animal care. Most of us were inspired to pursue a career in animal care because we love the animals we work with and want to help preserve them in the wild. It is a very competitive field and many of us have worked long and hard obtaining relevant degrees, volunteering and interning to secure a zookeeping job.

Why are these roles so important?

Zookeepers are on the front line of providing the best care for the animals that visitors connect with at a zoo or aquarium. Through advanced positive reinforcement training techniques we are able to monitor the health and wellbeing of our animals very closely. From training a sea lion to participate in a voluntary ultrasound to training a polar bear to present a paw for a voluntary blood draw- all of these things add up to provide our animals with the best care possible.

While zookeepers provide the day to day animal care, there are many other jobs filled by talented passionate people that move our organization forward.  It is through all of us working together that we are able to accomplish Como Zoo’s mission of inspiring the public to value to presence of living things in our lives.

Tell us a little bit about the African penguins at Como Zoo and their wild counterparts.

Here at Como Zoo we are home to a colony of 10 African penguins. They all have unique personalities! Two of our African penguins are Animal Ambassadors and visit educational programs to connect with our visitors. This is not only a fun experience for our guests but an enriching experience for the penguins as well!

As with all of our animals, African penguins here at Como Zoo are ambassadors to their species in the wild. African penguins in the wild are experiencing a steep decline and are listed as endangered by the ICUN and the US Endangered Species Act. It is estimated that they could be extinct in as little as 15 years. Major threats to their survival include pressures from overfishing, fish populations moving further from land due to changes in the ocean temperatures, and oil spills to name a few. The good news is that there are a number of organizations working to help save African penguins from extinction.

How is Como Zoo working to support organizations that help African penguins in the wild?

This year Como Zoo introduced a new initiative called Conservation Champions supported by grants from Como Friends. This program gives staff members the opportunity to share their ideas about how Como Zoo can contribute to conservation efforts. It is a great program because so many of the staff who work here are very passionate about conservation!   Through the Conservation Champions initiative, Como Zoo is contributing funding to a research project in South Africa that is part of the AZA SAFE program. Como Zoo is also sending another zookeeper, Kelley, to South Africa in the fall of 2017 to participate in a keeper exchange with the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB). Stay tuned to hear more about her trip later this year!

Can you describe the AZA SAFE program?

First I should explain that AZA stands for Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Como Zoo has been a member since 1990. The AZA has rigorous standards that zoos and aquariums are held to for the well-being of animals and humans. Additionally they provide professional development opportunities, oversee animal management programs and lead conservation initiatives such as their SAFE program.

SAFE stands for Saving Animals From Extinction and was created to connect zoos and aquariums, researchers, non-governmental organizations, and government organizations under one common goal: saving species!  Using a “One Plan” approach for 10 key species, they have a developed Conservation Action Plan to identify the most pressing needs to save a species from extinction. It’s a really great program because it brings together everyone’s strengths to make the biggest impact for animals in the wild. Zoos and aquariums play a large role in this process as AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums have over 180 million visitors each year! Como Zoo alone had almost 2 million visitors last year!

What is SANCCOB and what is Como Zoo doing to support them?

The South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) is a seabird rehabilitation facility with three locations in South Africa. They take in all types injured and abandoned seabirds and rehabilitate them for eventual release in the wild. African penguins make up approximately 25% of their patients. They are also the primary response team in the event of an oil spill. An independent research study concluded that through their rehabilitation efforts they are responsible for 19% of the current population. That’s almost 1 in 5 African penguins alive today!

Como Zoo is able to join a large group of zoos and aquariums in supporting SANCCOB through a financial donation and staff support. Another Marine Animal Zookeeper, Kelley, is traveling to South to assist SANCCOB during their busiest season this fall. These efforts were made possible by donations from the community to our support organization, Como Friends.

Anything else you would like to add?

For more information follow Como Zoo on Facebook and check out the links below!

Como Friends



AZA’s “Invest in the Nest” Kickstarter Campaign