A new “Como Through Time” display explores how Como Park Zoo and Conservatory evolved from a Victoria-era menagerie to become Minnesota’s most visited conservation classroom

Minnesota lawmakers recently approved $15 million in public bonding to help pay for new seals and sea lions habitat for Sparky and her friends at Como Zoo—a long-awaited remodel sure to please Como’s pinnipeds and the two million annual visitors who love them.

“Sparky is one of our best animal ambassadors, but her habitat hasn’t kept pace with the progressive improvements like Polar Bear Odyssey and Gorilla Forest,” says Michelle Furrer, Como campus director. “We’re thrilled to be able to start construction on a remodeling plan that will preserve the Sparky legacy that visitors love, while creating a more naturalistic habitat that our seals and sea lions can access year-round. We’ve come a long way in the six decades since Sparky first came to Como, and we’re excited that she’s about to have a home that really reflects those changes.”

Como’s continued evolution, from entertainment destination to a conservation classroom, is now the focus of “Como Through Time,” a new interpretive display unveiled this month. With educational signage and historic images installed on the cages of the historic Como Zoo building (now the home of Como’s administrative offices), the display covers more than a century of forward progress at Como.

“When Como Zoo first opened this building during the Depression, these cages were considered the cutting edge of what zoos could offer the public,” says Jackie Sticha, President of Como Friends, which provided the funding for the exhibit. “One of the things I like about this exhibit is that it reminds us how far we’ve come as an institution committed to best practice animal care, and also how much community support has made possible, from starting one of the most successful operant conditioning training programs in the country, to creating award-winning habitats like Polar Bear Odyssey.” Here’s a glimpse of just how far Como has come:

Monkey Island is one of several Como exhibits and buildings built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. Retrofitted in 1982, it was rechristened “Seal Island” for harbor seals and sea lions, animals that have to be transported from the aquatics building to outdoor display each season. Thanks to the new Sparky habitat set to begin construction next year, Como Zoo’s pinnipeds will be able to dive into their new salt-water pools year-round.

Considered one of the country’s premiere animal habitats when it opened in 1937, Como’s “Zoological Building,” was designed by St. Paul city architect Charles Bassford. Now the home of Como’s administrative offices, the exterior of the historic building still has many of its original Art Deco era motifs, like these charming monkey and giraffe sconces.

Did You Know?

  • When Como Friends provided the funding to launch a progressive animal training program at Como in 2000, Sparky the Sea Lion was the first animal to participate. Today, hundreds of animals take part in daily training and enrichment exercises that keep animals healthy and curious.
  • Como Friends provided the funding to dig into design plans for the new seals and sea lions habitat, which calls for a more naturalistic habitat that will provide visitors year-round views, and more splash time for Sparky and her friends.
  • Como Zoo got its start in 1897, eight years before the Minnesota State Capitol was completed.

For children of the 1950s and 60s, petting a cheetah, piggy-backing on a tortoise, and feeding fish to Sparky would have been part of an average day at Como Zoo, which provided even more “up close and personal” encounters with animals than today’s visitors can even imagine. As animal care and conservation awareness improved, Toby the tortoise got a reprieve from public life, earning a send-off to the Honolulu Zoo in 1974 for a breeding recommendation.

Since 1926, the Sunken Garden at the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory has been packing in crowds eager to see spring return after a long Minnesota winter. Thanks to private contributions to Como Friends, Como is one of the only botanical gardens in the country that still curates five seasonal flower shows every year.

Como’s historic Japanese Garden was entirely reimagined in the 1960s and 1970s by Masami Matsuda, a 9th generation Nagasaki landscape architect who first created Como’s more modern sansui-style garden. Since 2013, Como Friends has invested in a restoration plan for the garden which has been recognized as one of the nation’s “rising stars” among public Japanese gardens.

The historic McKnight Garden was removed to make way for Como’s new Visitor Center and Fern Room, opened in 2005. This summer, the new Minnesota Garden in the Visitor Center forecourt has revived some of those features, with native plants and a new public art installation called “Little Giants.”

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