Evolving with the times, Minnesota’s most iconic animal ambassador gets ready for a remodel.
Sea lions are gregarious by nature, but Como Zoo’s 7-year-old Subee raises sociability to a new level. When aquatics keepers cross the threshold into the California sea lion’s exhibit area, Subee hauls out of the water at high speed, skidding to a stop at the feet of senior keeper Allison Jungheim.
“Coming to say hello?” Jungheim teases, as Subee’s long whiskers twitch with excitement. “Of course she wants to find out if there’s food, but she’s also one of those animals who really lights up when she’s being trained. She loves to learn, so she’s got a great temperament for taking on the Sparky tradition.”
After a summer spent doing her homework in “Sparky School,” the theme for last season’s Sparky the Sea Lion Show, Subee will make her official debut as Sparky in 2016, becoming the seventh sea lion in almost as many decades to perform for the crowds at Como Zoo. While her predecessor CC, Sparky VI, earned a reputation among trainers for her entertaining diva-like tendencies, Subee has an ecstatic approach to swimming and diving that’s all her own. “Her energy is unbelievable, and she likes to do things with a little extra flourish,” Jungheim says.
Subee arrived at Como in 2010, after being rehabilitated at a marine mammal rescue site in California following what veterinarians believe was a shark attack. An injured right rear flipper, shattered cartilage and scar tissue made her a poor risk for survival in the wild, but the 190-pound sea lion still has plenty of energy to pester her pool-mates, 25-year-old CC, and Mystic, CC’s 33-year-old mother.
Did You Know?
- Sparky the Sea Lion was the first animal at Como Zoo to take part in operant conditioning training, a program that now includes hundreds of animals at Como.
- More than 150,000 visitors saw a Sparky the Sea Lion Show or seal island demonstration in 2014.
- Based on Como Zoo’s past economic impact, Sparky’s new remodeling plan could have an estimated $31 million in economic impact in the region.
“Subee is a great ambassador for her species, but she’s also a good representative of the many rescue animals we have at Como Zoo,” says Como campus director Michelle Furrer. In the aquatics building, harbor seals Fletcher and Ginger were also rescue animals deemed unreleasable in the wild, while Subee’s first roommate, a male sea lion named Chino, had a permanently scarred face from a nearly-fatal tangle with a fishing net. (The nearly 600-pound male sea lion now lives at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo as part of a breeding recommendation.)
“Some of Subee’s injuries mean we’ll have to keep a close eye on her for arthritis and other health problems down the line, but the great care she’s had at Como has given her a second chance at a good, long life,” says Furrer. “In that way, she’s also a great example of the evolution Como Zoo has made when it comes to animal conservation.”
From carnival act to conservation ambassador
As long-time Como visitors will remember, the original Sparky Show wasn’t about conservation at all—instead it played to the carnival atmosphere common to zoos in the 1950s.
Though Sparky’s been a Minnesota tradition for 60 years, her story actually got its start at a gas station in The Dalles, Oregon, where owner Archie Brand had a small collection of trained animals, including a male sea lion named Flipper who displayed serious acting chops. (“Flipper was a natural actor,” Brand once told the Milwaukee Sentinel. “He was a lot smarter than I was. I was full of stage fright.”) The pair became a popular touring act at sportsman’s fairs and summer carnivals, but at the urging of St. Paul businessman and broadcaster Stan Hubbard Sr., Brand and his sea lion show made Como Zoo their home base in 1956.
Before she had an amphitheater of her own, Sparky performed right on the Zoo grounds, balancing beach balls on her nose, honking bike horns, and performing hula hoop tricks. “In those days, people thought about zoos purely as entertainment,” say Furrer. “Kids rode tortoises, and keepers walked large cats around on leashes. The emphasis was on amusement versus the education and conservation that you see today.”
Brand’s stepson Norman Byng carried on the tradition, joining the Sparky show in the early 70s, and taking over when Brand retired in 1979. With a grueling three-times-a-day show schedule during the early years, it’s been estimated that Como hosted more than 10,000 Sparky shows by 1997, the year Como Zoo celebrated its first centennial. While successive sea lions took on the starring role of “Sparky,” the animal most Minnesotans may remember is Sparky V, who performed between 1981 and 2001—the longest tenure for any of Como Zoo’s sea lions. When he died in 2009 at the age of 31, Sparky had doubled the average life span of his wild cousins to become the second oldest male California sea lion in captivity. “We still talk about Sparky V,” says Jungheim. “He was just the best animal you can imagine.”
When Byng retired, Como’s aquatics keepers took over the animal training effort, instituting a new operant conditioning training program paid for by the brand-new fundraising group now known as Como Friends. The more progressive approach to animal care relies on positive reinforcement to stimulate animals’ natural behaviors, encouraging animals to participate in their own health care. That meant eliminating the public feeding pool at Seal Island, and using daily training sessions to build the bonds between animals and keepers. The shift quickly lowered aggression between the seals and sea lions because they were no longer competing with each other for food. It also allowed keepers to provide good geriatric care to aging animals like Sparky V, who even cooperated with trainers to remove a skin lesion with local anesthetic.
“In the old days, we would have to crate an animal and put them under to provide that kind of care, but the training program has made so many more things possible,” says Jungheim. “That’s especially important when you’re working with animals that will live much longer than they would in the wild, and have some health concerns like cataracts, arthritis and other problems related to their age.”
Over time, Como’s operant conditioning training program has expanded to include reptiles, amphibians, birds and nearly every mammal at Como, from tiny 6-ounce primates to 1,000-pound polar bears. Even so, the pinnipeds remain the most visible ambassadors for the training program’s successes. “The way it’s evolved, the Sparky Show is itself a training program that showcases all of the behind-the-scenes encounters that take place between keepers and animals every day,” says Furrer. “When keepers train a polar bear to present a paw for a voluntary blood draw, they’re using the same techniques and positive reinforcement visitors see every summer in the Sparky show.”
A New Habitat: Better Training by Design
Daily animal training sessions are a big attraction at Como Zoo, where more than 100,000 visitors every year drop in on a demonstration for primates, polar bears, or pinnipeds—the three most popular draws. While Polar Bear Odyssey and Gorilla Forest were built specifically to showcase these sessions, Seal Island was never designed for training—in fact, it wasn’t intended for seals at all.
“What we call ‘Seal Island’ was originally built during the WPA era as Monkey Island, and it used to be the home to monkeys, alligators, apparently even bears—though I can’t even imagine what that was like,” Jungheim says. The exhibit was retrofitted in the late 1970s to display seals and sea lions, but its design features have long posed a challenge to people and pinnipeds alike. Keepers must cross a retractable bridge to reach the island for daily training sessions, where it’s difficult to separate animals for special care. The surrounding pool also lacks the filtration system necessary for salt water, forcing the animals to move indoors to the aquatics building for nearly nine months every year.
Inside, the larger pool best suited to Como Zoo’s three sea lions is sited opposite the feeder pool to the Sparky amphitheater. This past summer, that required keepers to close the aquatics building for a set time every day to allow CC, Mystic, and Subee to “walk” from one side to another on their way to the show—an inconvenience the sea lions may have enjoyed more than their keepers. “Some days they like to stop and look at the penguins,” Jungheim says.
Resolving many of these challenges is the motivation behind a major remodeling plan for the seal and sea lion exhibit, says Jackie Sticha, president of Como Friends, which paid for the development of a new design plan.”
“Sparky is such a big part of what drives visitors to Como Zoo that the seals and sea lions deserve to be our top priority when it comes to creating more naturalistic and progressive habitats,” she says. With renewed accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums confirmed in September 2015, “We’re also very mindful of that fact that Como Zoo needs to keep pace with the best practice standards for marine mammal care, and we predict that in the near future, Como’s current facility simply won’t be able to meet those standards.”
The $14.5 million remodeling plan calls for several major upgrades including a salt water filtration system that will allow seals and sea lions to swim outdoors year-round—just as they would in the wild. The immersive design of the habitat will allow keepers to conduct training sessions in several different locations, each designed with natural substrate, rock work and plantings that will evoke the Pacific coastline habitat. With a newly shaded amphitheater and underwater views of animals, the multi-layered habitat will give visitors better views and greater insights into the natural behaviors and native intelligence of marine mammals.
“This plan is definitely modeled on the success of Polar Bear Odyssey and Gorilla Forest, and moving Como Zoo toward those more naturalistic and engaging settings,” says Sticha. “One of the big lessons we’ve learned from each of those projects is that when you make habitats better for animals, you make them better for visitors, too.”
Making a splash across Minnesota
Public enthusiasm for Polar Bear Odyssey was so high that Como welcomed 2.2 million visitors the year it opened—more than a 10 percent surge over Como’s average annual attendance of just under two million. While major upgrades clearly drive attendance at Como, Minnesota’s most visited cultural institution, recent projects have also helped drive the state’s economy. For instance, the $11 million in public funding that paid for the Gorilla Forest expansion opened in 2013 created more than 200 jobs and $24 million in economic impact for the region.
“Como has been a tourist destination for five generations, and every year, we can see we have visitors from more than 60 Minnesota counties,” says Nancy Nelson, chair of Como Friends’ board of directors. This year, the board commissioned an economic impact study conducted by Sapphire Consulting that found that visits to Como Park Zoo and Conservatory are a major part of Twin Cities tourism, generating an estimated $162.7 million in economic impact statewide. “That’s why we’re working hard to make the case at the Capitol this year that Como merits public funding, because we truly serve a statewide audience.”
This fall, Como was one of several Minnesota institutions to host lawmakers for a series of sight-seeing tours, studying bonding requests that will come before the Legislature later this year. “Those visits are really valuable, because if you haven’t been to Como in the last decade, you may not realize that this ‘old-time’ Minnesota tradition has really been transformed by some very forward-looking projects, from the Visitor Center to one of the nation’s best polar bear exhibits,” says Sticha.
Personalizing nature, one splash at a time
Creating a new home for Sparky and her friends may also reap returns that are harder to measure—but no less valuable.
“As a former teacher, I can tell you that the connections kids are making when they get face to face with an animal like Sparky are more powerful and memorable than anything you can learn about nature in a book,” says Nelson.
In fact, a recent report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that conservation messages that anthropomorphize nature, fostering a “personal” connection to an animal like Sparky the Sea Lion or Smokey the Bear, make children and adults feel more connected to the environment, and more accountable for making wise choices.
“If you’ve been to a Sparky show you know that intuitively,” says Nelson. “Sparky captures and holds kids’ attention in a way that makes it possible to explain what we need to do for animals in need, and why we need to take care of the environment. That’s the conservation message that drives really everything we do at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, and Sparky is the gateway. Sparky makes it personal.”