Your support for Como Friends removes barriers, ensuring that Como is a community asset that belongs to everyone

When Como Park Zoo and Conservatory’s leaders go to the Capitol each year to compete for public funding, State Senator John Marty is happy to help make the case. “I always love working on projects at Como because this is truly a state asset, with state-wide significance,” says Marty, a DFL-er who has represented the 66th district surrounding Como since 1986. “Fewer than one in six Como visitors live in St. Paul, but more than a third of Como’s funding comes from St. Paul taxpayers. It’s a gift from the people of St. Paul to the state of Minnesota and beyond.”

Over the years, he’s helped to persuade fellow lawmakers of the value of investing in new capital improvements like Polar Bear Odyssey, Gorilla Forest, and the splashy new seals and sea lions habitat, Como Harbor. And while he’s delighted to see sea lions Subee and CC sailing through their new salt-water pools, what moves him most is Como’s free admission policy.

“Most anywhere else you go, extra money gives you better access to things. But here, everything you see is free to everyone. Every person who comes to Como has the same opportunity to learn and to grow,” Marty says. “That’s why I’m so proud to watch the great things that are happening here, because we all benefit from it, and we’re all better off for it. I believe that if we want to fight inequities, we need to do more of what Como is doing.”

Beautiful and Barrier-Free
While free admission has been a feature of Como Park Zoo and Conservatory for generations, Como Friends President Jackie Sticha says Como’s accessibility has gained more notice in recent years as state lawmakers have looked at rectifying Minnesota’s persistent racial disparities, and ensuring equitable access to the State’s resources for all residents.

“Como has always welcomed one of the most diverse audiences of any cultural institution in the state, and free admission definitely has been one of the driving factors,” she says. “Como Friends’ commitment to protecting free admission is one of the best ways we know of building a culture of equity and inclusiveness, by making sure that everyone feels this place belongs to them.”

That commitment continued in spite of the increased public health demands and decreased revenues brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. While Como shifted to a reservation-only system to limit visitor capacity and help prevent the spread of the virus, admission remained free for everyone. Though many visitors have chosen to make suggested donations to the Zoo and Conservatory through Como Park Zoo and Conservatory’s website, “it’s not a requirement, which we know is very meaningful to the nearly 40 percent of Como visitors who have household incomes below the state median,” says Sticha.

Tina Dombrowski, horticultural curator of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, says Como’s open door policy was a real eye-opener for public garden professionals who came to Como for a national conference several years ago. “After a tour of the Conservatory, one of our visitors turned to me with a look of surprise and said, ‘I can’t believe what a diverse audience you have,’” she says. While botanical gardens around the country tend to attract an older, whiter audience than other cultural institutions, “here we have a huge range, not just of visitors of different races and ethnicities and backgrounds, but also a wide range of ages and abilities as well.’’

Making More Great Memories Possible
This year, with the generosity of our donors, Como Friends is increasing its support by 75% for the day to day work of caring for the animals and gardens at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory and making possible free admission for all. These contributions are already helping Como get back up to full speed after more than a year of altered operations. At the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, that means seasonal offerings like the Gates Ajar mosaiculture sculpture, which was postponed in 2020, are back in bloom, serving as a backdrop for untold numbers of Instagram images.

While a Japanese Garden Endowment Fund created by Como Friends in 2015 has ensured steady progress and continued maintenance of the beloved Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden, Como Friends’ funding has also made it possible to restore the Frog Pond and the Lily Pond, exterior gardens that were minimally maintained during last year’s quarantine.

At Como Zoo, having a reliable source of revenue has made it possible to hire an on-campus veterinary technician, a new role that was critical to organizing care for Skeeter the giraffe when he fractured his hoof. It’s also allowed Como to expand its Life Support team, which includes two professional keepers who specialize in keeping water environments safe and healthy for animals like Subee the sea lion.

Animal Curator John Dee, who will be retiring in December after 33 years at Como Zoo, says that Como Friends’ partnership has gone far beyond annual contributions and improvements to promoting professional development opportunities for his team that wouldn’t have been possible on a city budget. “Support from Como Friends gave my staff the access to do some remarkable things, and fully realize their dreams, not just to work with animals here in the zoo, but also out in the wild. That’s been pretty spectacular.”

Senator Marty says that having a nonprofit fundraising organization like Como Friends is an important part of the package as lawmakers consider where to make public investments, because it shows that private individuals, corporations and foundations also see Como’s value to the community.

“Zoos and libraries and museums are sometimes seen as ‘extra’ when we’ve got hungry people to think about. But there’s also spiritual hunger, emotional hunger and we’ve got to find ways to feed all of those needs,” he says. “Health care, housing and food are urgent, but if you took away all of the arts and institutions like this, that’s not living. Because disparities aren’t just about whether you can afford food, they’re also about not being able to access experiences like this. What I love about Como is this is a place that says ‘we want everyone in.’”

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