Personalizing nature is one of the first steps in protecting it

Sparky, Neil, Chloe, and Schroeder are just a few of the Como Park Zoo & Conservatory animals known to millions of visitors by their first names. Though there was once a time when zoos shied away from showcasing the individual animals in their care, a growing body of research now tells us that encouraging the public to forge personal connections to nature is one of the best ways to protect it. 

That thinking is the driving force behind a series of new education and engagement strategies now in effect at Como Park Zoo & Conservatory, thanks to support from Advancing Conservation through Empathy (ACE) for Wildlife, a learning network of AZA-accredited zoos, aquariums, and other institutions exploring effective practices for fostering empathy for animals.

“The old theory was that simply sharing knowledge would be enough to inspire action, but what we’re coming to realize is that fostering meaningful emotional connections is just as  important. Having empathy for an animal builds the desire to act on their behalf,” says Bekah Hanes, Como’s education and conservation curator. “Empathy is a skill you can develop and build on, and it’s becoming an important tool to help people cross the finish line from thinking about conservation to actually acting out those values, long after a zoo visit is over.”

The official shift toward empathy-focused engagement started in 2016, when Como Friends secured a major grant to help Como Park Zoo & Conservatory implement a new education and engagement strategy called the ROADMAP (Reaching Our Audiences by Developing Mission Aligned Programs). While the pandemic put a pause on public education programs for a time, Como continued to move ahead with its mission, securing grants from ACE for Wildlife to rewrite Como’s volunteer interpretive programs with an empathy focus, to use empathy as the lens for a new education strategic plan, and to create new permanent signage in the wolves and large cats habitat that uses empathy-inspiring language. While Como is one of the inaugural members of the ACE for Wildlife Learning Network, a special project of Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, the empathy movement is gaining ground with many other AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums. 

Public Engagement Coordinator Kelsey Raffel says “it’s a great shift that’s happened in a relatively short amount of time,” in part because it embodies an approach toward audience engagement that Como’s keepers, horticulturists, interpreters, and educators gravitate toward naturally. “Focusing on empathy in our education programs, volunteer training, and visitor engagement has gotten a great reception from the campus,” she says. “For instance, our interpretive staff have shared that they love talking about the individual animals we care for, their personalities and likes and dislikes, and this approach really encourages them to do that.” 


Jackie Sticha, president of Como Friends, says community support is critical to providing the resources Como Park Zoo & Conservatory needs to stay current as a conservation educator and a national leader in animal care. More than 20 years ago, Como Friends funding helped Como Zoo make a shift toward positive reinforcement training for animals, and we see this empathy work as part of that same evolution,” she says. “It’s just natural to want to know the names of the animals at Como Zoo, and now the research tells us it’s also a really powerful way of connecting visitors to the natural world.”

The St. Paul Winter Carnival Orchid Show is the cure for the mid-winter blahs

With more than 28,000 naturally occurring species, the Orchidaceae family is one of the largest and most diverse of the world’s flowering plants. On January 27 and 28, Marjorie McNeely Conservatory visitors will get a chance to see the cream of the crop at the St. Paul Winter Carnival Orchid Show, a Como tradition for nearly 50 years.

Curating and designing Como’s display this year is horticulturist Alejandro Balderas, who cares about orchids even in his off-hours. “Before I moved to Minnesota from California, I had about 70 plants and 30 cultivars of my own,” he says. While he’s trimmed his personal collection to a more manageable size, there’s a good chance it will grow again once he’s had a look at the newest species and varietals for purchase at the Orchid Show’s marketplace. “There are so  many shapes and sizes, and there’s always something new on the market,” he says. “It makes it hard to resist.” 

Like the tulip mania that hit Europe in the 1600s, orchids had a similar history in the 1800s, when so-called “orchidelirium” sent prices for rare tropical species soaring into the stratosphere. But now with so many hearty varieties widely available in garden shops and grocery stores, orchids are no longer quite as intimidating to curious home gardeners. 

“Orchid growing has become much more transparent because of the internet and with people having access to the literature online,” he says, from groups like the Orchid Society of Minnesota, a co-sponsor of the Winter Carnival Show. “They’re one of the few houseplants that actually flowers consistently,” he says, with colors made to attract pollinators and people stuck indoors during the winter. “Minnesotans seem to really love their orchids,” he says. 

For the show, Balderas and other horticulturists are planning to display more than two dozen of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s best species, drawn from a large working  collection predominantly featuring plants from Central and South America. Set in the Fern Room, the design will feature a sculpture dedicated to the Conservatory on its 50th anniversary in 1965.

Advanced admission reservations are required to attend the St. Paul Winter Carnival Orchid Show, and tickets are $5 for adults and $4 for Como Friends members, seniors, and children under the age of 12. Visit this link for more information. 

Your support for Como Friends helps to make the Conservation Champions program possible, supporting Como’s talented staff’s participation in conservation partnerships and in their continued professional development. Thank you!

Reusing, reducing and recycling is one of the secrets of Como’s Sunken Garden

Horticulturist Rylee Werden has fond memories of visiting Como with her mother and grandmother. “We always came to see the flowers together, so having the chance to design a flower show that connects with the Winter Carnival Orchid Show is really an honor.”

This season’s Winter Flower Show is a storybook example of an English-style cottage garden, with dense green foliage, deep pink and purple flowers, and a casually unkempt style—as if the garden is bursting out to fill its stone boundaries after years and years of growth.  

“I was really inspired by the plant loropetalum which has a really nice weeping tree form and pretty flowers that I thought would make the pond look sort of enchanted,” says horticulturist Rylee Werden, who designed the show, her first for the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. “From there I started building in more pinks and snowy whites and icy blues to play with the winter season. And the Winter Carnival Orchid Show coming later this month is what inspired me to use two of the flowers, a snapdragon called ‘Snappy Orchid Flame’, and a Viola called ‘Orchid Rose Beacon’”.

While most of the flowers you’ll see in this season’s show were grown from seed or plugs back in September, many supporting players in the Sunken Garden’s canopy were drafted from the Conservatory’s expansive greenhouse, design choices that are helping to make Como’s five seasonal flower shows more sustainable. For instance, the small birch trees featured in the Winter Flower Show were recently culled from the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden. 

“Visitors seem to really love how they look, and we’re always excited to find a new use for what we already have,” says Werden. In fact, when the winter show is complete, the cuttings will be converted into birch poles for use in next year’s holiday plantings. 

“As often as we can, we also try to give the plants and trees we use in the Sunken Garden a second life somewhere on campus, or in the community,” says Como’s horticultural curator, Dr. Lisa Philander. For years, spring bulbs pulled from the Sunken Garden have been recycled and resold through Como Friends’ Garden Safari Gifts, with proceeds that help pay for the next year’s bulb show. Your contributions to Como Friends are also helping the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory start a new on-site compost system with the capacity to turn tons of spent plant material into rich compost for future flower shows and gardens. 

Making smart use of resources—from existing plant collections and from contributions from people like you—has helped Como Park Zoo & Conservatory keep its tradition of  five rotating flower shows going for nearly 99 years. Thank you!

To sponsor the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s Sunken Garden visit: 

From the favorite foods Como’s animals love to the free field trips that inspire the next generation, your contributions to Como Friends make more possible

There are few things Como Zoo’s giraffes love more than browsing—wrapping their legendarily long tongues around the tiny twigs and tender shoots of tree branches and shrub cuttings that keepers place in their habitat. Browse is easy to come by during the growing season, but when the cold weather comes, Como’s hoofstock herd often has to wait until springtime to tuck into their favorite bushes and branches. 

But thanks to your support for Como Friends, there’s a new giraffe snack solution on the horizon. With the help of donors, the African Hoofstock Building will have extra room in the budget to bring in fresh browse from warmer climes during the winter months, providing hours of munching, crunching, and curious exploration for Skeeter, Clover, Zinnia and Ivy, the cute new calf born in November. 

The funding for the winter browse is just a fraction of the $1.83 million annual contribution to Como Park Zoo & Conservatory that your support for Como Friends made possible this year. “We know that gifts of all amounts from our donors have an incredible impact for the animals at Como Zoo, the gardens at the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory and for the people who love to come and experience Como throughout the year,” says Jackie Sticha, president of Como Friends. “Since Como Friends’ start back in 2000, that’s really been one of the most satisfying aspects of our successful public-private partnership—seeing the enormous difference that a little extra generosity can make in the care of the plants and animals we love at Como, and in the ways we serve the community.” Here’s a look at how your gifts made a difference in 2023: 

Tools and Training for Even Better Animal Care:

More than 20 years ago, Como Friends funding helped launch the positive reinforcement animal training initiative that’s helped to make Como Zoo a national leader in progressive care for animals of all sizes, from penguins to polar bears. This year, your generosity will support continued animal training consulting, advising Como Zoo’s professional keepers on new findings about animal behavior and best practice training techniques to benefit all of the animals in Como’s care. Contributions from people like you also make it possible to amp up Como’s arsenal of specialized equipment, from specialized crates to care for polar bears and large cats; scuba tanks and spectrophotometers to keep water habitats healthy for amphibians, fish, and marine mammals; to a new radiograph, tonometer and digital x-ray machine that allow Como Zoo to provide quicker, cutting-edge veterinary care to animals. 

Como Friends is also making investments in more individualized animal needs. At Gorilla Forest, Schroeder’s tight-knit family troop will get a dedicated pathway for moving in and out of their habitat, giving gorillas greater choice about where they want to spend the day. A new shade structure is helping keep animals in the African Hoofstock habitat cooler on hot days. And in Tropical Encounters, Chloe the free-ranging sloth will be able to save even more of her energy with an expanded habitat that will allow her to stay in her tree 24/7, instead of retreating to her behind-the-scenes bedroom at night.

Cool Conservation Curriculum For All: 

Always a trusted educational partner to area schools, Como’s conservation programs are coming back in full force this year. Thanks to your support, Como has the resources it needs to relaunch a second grade field trip program. This summer, as Como’s popular summer camp programs resume, Como Friends funding will also support camp scholarships to ensure that families have access to Como’s cool conservation programs.

Helping the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory Grow:

Over the years, your contributions to Como Friends have helped to keep many of Como’s best horticultural traditions growing, from the fantastic Holiday Flower Show on display this month in the Sunken Garden, to the continued transformation of the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden. This year, your contributions are helping preserve and protect Como’s extraordinary horticultural collections, with a new security system for Como’s valued bonsai collection, a new lighting system in the North Garden, and a new database that helps Como’s horticulturists keep track of all the specimens in Como’s beautiful gardens.

The rainforest habitat of Tropical Encounters was reenergized by a complete soil replacement, while a new sound system will help improve the visitor experience throughout the Conservatory. As part of Como’s continued conservation efforts, your support is also helping to implement a new composting system to save time and energy, turning last year’s plant material into rich compost, right at Como. Your support also helped the Conservatory launch a new integrated pest management system, deploying beneficial bugs throughout Como’s garden to further reduce the use of pesticides. 

Free Admission for All:

Most important, your support for Como Friends helped Como Park Zoo & Conservatory make a full return to traditional operations this year, welcoming more than 1.75 million visitors—and counting. Thank you for all you do to support the natural wonders that bring our community together at Como Park Zoo & Conservatory!

The diverse color possibilities of Poinsettias are now on display at the Holiday Flower Show, featuring  ‘Ferrara’ red, variegated ‘Tapestry’ plants with yellow & green leaves, and yellow ‘Golden Glo’ Poinsettias. Yellow flowering kalanchoe, hibiscus, and lemon cyprus add tropical accents to one of the most visited flower shows of the year. 

Known as the flor de nochebuena—or Christmas Eve Flower—in their native Mexico, it’s no wonder Poinsettias have become the quintessential plant of the season. Available in  endless shades of reds, pinks, creams, and greens, Poinsettias are among the most economically valuable plants in the world, with nearly 70 million sold each holiday season in the United States alone. 

Marjorie McNeely Conservatory horticulturist Bo Akinkuotu knows just what it takes to make these delicate tropical plants come to life. Back in June, he planted more than 1,000 Poinsettias to ensure they’d be at their peak just in time for the Holiday Flower Show now on display in the Sunken Garden through January 7.

“It’s a tricky thing, because Poinsettias are a touchy, finicky plant, especially for growing at home,” Akinkuotu says. Though they’re deeply associated with the winter holidays, “They’re a tropical, heat-loving plant, and they don’t like to get too wet, or they’ll rot, and they don’t like to get too dry, or they’ll wilt. You have to find that sweet spot between the two.” 

A member of the Euphorbia family, Poinsettias can only come to life during the darkest days of the year. “The interesting thing about them is that they really need these shorter days to start showing and changing their colors through the bracts, which are the showy part of the plant,” he says. Climate control is another key ingredient to keeping these plants at their best. “They’re unhappy in chilly weather, but if you can keep the temperature in the low to mid 70s, they’ll usually last until the end of the holiday season.”

Thanks to your contributions to Como Friends, the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s Holiday Flower Show is always free, and is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day of the week, including Christmas and New Year’s Day.

A trip to the Polar Bear Capital of the World helped teach Como Zoo keeper Kristin Riske new ways to talk about climate change

Back in 2008 when the polar bear became the first animal listed under the Endangered Species Act to be threatened primarily by climate change, we all learned how individual choices here at home can help improve conditions in the Arctic. From turning off unneeded lights, to driving less, to choosing products with less packaging, many zoo visitors at Arctic Ambassador Centers like Como Zoo are now well-versed in all the individual choices that can contribute to a more sustainable future. 

But could there be a better way to talk about what’s happening to polar bears?

That’s the question Como Zoo aquatics keeper Kristin Riske has been exploring as a Conservation Champion, the Como Friends program that funds professional development experiences and on-site field work for several zookeepers and horticulturists each year. With support from the program, Riske joined a cohort of other keepers and educators in the Climate Alliance Program, a unique Polar Bears International partnership program aimed at empowering conservation professionals—many, like Riske, who care for polar bears every day—to effectively communicate about climate change and inspire real-world solutions.

“Como has been part of the Arctic Ambassador Network for years, and this program is designed especially for institutions like ours,” Riske says. “As zookeepers, we’re in a great position to get the message out to the public.”

The program started early in 2023, as Riske and other zookeepers and educators took part in an eight-month online learning course, created in partnership with National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation. Through the training, Riske learned about the latest best practice communication strategies around climate change, and how building awareness and support for climate solutions has evolved over time. 

“Having this training through Climate Alliance really changed my view on how to get the message across,” says Riske, who got her start as a Como Zoo intern back in 2014. “Back when I started, it was all about how we should turn off our lights and recycle, but through this program, I’ve learned it’s more about the collective action that we need to take—voting for the climate, creating community gardens, shifting to renewable energy, advocating for community-wide or city-based sustainability programs.” 

Last month, the Climate Alliance Program culminated in a week-long trip to Churchill, Manitoba, the polar bear capital of the world. “It was really early in the season, still in the 40s and 50s, so we only saw one bear—a female sleeping near the coast,” Riske says. “But being out in the Tundra Buggy exceeded my expectations in every way. We got to see ptarmigan and caribou, and got the chance to meet and talk with the indigenous people of Churchill who told us more about the land around us.” 

Now back at Como Zoo where she cares for polar bears Neil, Nan, and Kulu, Riske says her Conservation Champions experience continues to inspire her. There really are no words to encapsulate what I experienced,” she says. “I went into this Climate Alliance program to learn more about polar bears, climate change, and what we can do to help. What I didn’t know was the bond I would form with all of these amazing people from different facilities that want to do the same thing. I am still processing my experience up in Churchill, but one thing I do know is I have become more empowered, and a spark has grown in me that wants to advocate for climate change. I can’t thank Polar Bears International, Frontiers North Adventures, Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, and Como Friends enough for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Your support for Como Friends helps to make the Conservation Champions program possible, supporting Como’s talented staff’s participation in conservation partnerships and in their continued professional development. Thank you!

The dazzling colors of Día de los Muertos are the inspiration for the second half of the Sunken Garden’s fall flower show now on display.

“As gardeners, we’re always interested in trying new things in traditional spaces,” says Lisa Philander, the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s horticulture curator. “The goal was to create a feeling of undulating waves of color, rather than making each side of the room a mirror of the other.”

The dazzling colors of Día de los Muertos are the inspiration for the second half of the Sunken Garden’s fall flower show now on display. With orange and yellow mums, accented by bright magenta celosia, this season’s flower show is a fiesta for the senses.

One featured flower is the orange marigold, a Mexican native plant known by the Aztec name cempasúchil. A flower that’s strongly associated with the holiday, the color and fragrance of marigolds are said to show departed souls the path to their family homes. Gardening sources report that demand for marigolds has also risen considerably since the 2017 Disney Pixar film Coco, which introduced a worldwide audience to the customs of Día de los Muertos. 

Visitors to the Sunken Garden may also notice that the design of this season’s Fall Flower Show is asymmetrical, breaking up the bilateral design pattern that’s commonly been used in the room. “As gardeners, we’re always interested in trying new things in traditional spaces,” says Lisa Philander, the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s horticulture curator. “The goal was to create a feeling of undulating waves of color, rather than making each side of the room a mirror of the other.” 

Always free to visitors thanks to your contributions to Como Friends, the Sunken Garden Fall Flower Show is now on display through November 26. 

Como’s chrysanthemum show has been a tradition since 1915, but you’ve never seen a fall flower show quite like this one! With an “Under the Sea” theme, the display includes anemone mums, green stingray colcassia, spider mums, and succulents that combine to create a cool octopus’s garden vibe in Minnesota’s most beautiful room. Check out this photo preview, and make plans to see it before October 30, when the fall flower show’s second half transforms into a celebration of Dia de los Muertos.

Did you know that the succulents used in the Fall Flower Show are the very same succulents used in the Gates Ajar display this summer!

Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, the Fall Flower Show is always free to visitors, thanks to your contributions to Como Friends.

A horticultural tradition with roots that go back to 1894, Como’s beloved mosaiculture is back in season

Marjorie McNeely Conservatory assistant gardener Marie Day was wrapping up her work watering the Gates Ajar installation recently when a nearby pedestrian caught her eye to convey a message. 

“She didn’t speak English, but she pointed to Gates Ajar and she started clapping,” Day recalls. “She got the point across.”

Located just east of Lexington Parkway, Gates Ajar earns applause every year from visitors who appreciate the fresh new ways Como’s horticulturists have interpreted this historic horticultural attraction. Created back in 1894, when building topiary-like sculptures from plant material was the height of European flower fashion, Gates Ajar has been a fixture at Como for more than 100 years. With a name inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1851 poem “The Golden Legend,” Gates Ajar is essentially an elaborate upright flower bed that requires more than 100 gardener hours to bring into bloom. 

Day, who designed this year’s installation, says that work starts with bringing new soil into the structure, a “mudding” process similar to putting up drywall. Next, a team of four gardeners and five interns began planting this year’s sun and moon motif out of nearly 10,000 Conservatory-grown annual plants—a  mix of colorful alternanthera and echeveria, a fast-growing succulent. 

Once fully installed, Gates Ajar requires continued and painstaking care, from hand-pulling weeds and trimming overgrowth, to nearly 45 minutes of watering each day. The vertical structure can also be a challenge, says Day. “I’m not very tall, so I have to bring in a step ladder and try not to crush the plant material below me.”

Day says she took her inspiration this year from the more traditional floriculture of the 1940s and 50s, but if she gets a chance to design 2024’s installation, purple would be the dominant color. “Next year is the 40th anniversary of ‘Purple Rain,’” she says. “I’m pretty sure that would be a big crowd-pleaser.”

the Summer Flower Show is always free to visitors, thanks to your contributions to Como Friends

Summer starts early in the Sunken Garden, where the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory’s Summer Flower Show is already in bloom. Brimming with bright colors and new varietals, the year’s longest running flower show is a great place to find inspiration for your own backyard. Open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, the Summer Flower Show is always free to visitors, thanks to your contributions to Como Friends.

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