By TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
Como Park Zoo and Conservatory is ready to give Sparky’s home an extreme makeover.
To move forward, Como is asking state legislators to approve $13.8 million in general obligation bonds. Another $1 million will come from private donations.
“Sparky is an ambassador for conservation education, through the 2 million plus visitors to Como Park Zoo and Conservatory each year, including 500,000 school age kids taking part of some educational programming,” said Como’s Campus Manager Michelle Furrer.
“Today we see multi-generations visiting and making connections with the animals like Sparky and our hope is that this will continue for generations.”
There was no funding set aside for Como Zoo in Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed bonding request to the Legislature, but there was $8.9 million in transportation and access improvements for the surrounding Como Regional Park. There was, however, $53.3 million in bonding requests from the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley.
PROJECT WILL OCCUPY SAME AREA AT COMO
Currently, the seals and sea lions split their time between Seal Island in the summer and the Marine Mammal Building in the winter. Sparky is housed year-round in a separate pool from other seals and sea lions.
“Como has been a part of Minnesota’s lives for over 100 years and Sparky for nearly 60 years,” observed Furrer.
The project being planned will use the same 64,500 square feet that currently houses Seal Island and the amphitheater. However, the amount of pool area will jump from 146,000 gallons to 244,000 gallons.
When Seal Island is renovated, all the seals and sea lions will be housed together, rather than in groups of two or three. Currently, Como has six pinnipeds (the classification for seals and sea lions), and will have room for eight with the changes to their habitat area.
GUESTS WILL EXPERIENCE TRAINING FIRSTHAND
The outdoor exhibit for seals was originally called Monkey Island when it was built by the WPA in the 1930s. It was converted in the early 1980s into Seal Island and an amphitheater was added nearby. The habitats were not built with training in mind, nor do they meet updated standards of animal management, according to Furrer.
With its freshwater pools, Seal Island no longer meets federal requirements. The renovation plan replaces the freshwater area with two saltwater pools. These will provide zoo guests with both underwater and above water viewing, and guests will be able to see the animals in a more naturalistic habitat year round. Plus, visitors will be able to experience the operant conditioning training of the animals firsthand.
Because the current facility was not designed with training in mind, Como trainers face the challenge of needing a trainer for each animal during sessions. “This means that if there are four animals on the island, we need four trainers,” explained Senior Keeper Allison Jungheim.
The new construction will give trainers more options. Using the principals of positive enforcement, the pinnipeds at Como receive 2-3 training sessions a day, during which they get most of their daily food.
“Training is mentally stimulating and very enriching for them,” said Jungheim.
NOT ABOUT GETTING BIGGER BUT BETTER
The update to Seal Island follows upon the heels of the $11 million Gorilla Forest that opened in June 2013, and the $15 million Polar Bear Odyssey that opened in June 2010.
“With the development of these last series of projects for Como, it’s not about getting bigger but doing what we do better,” said Furrer. “We want to ensure that, for generations to come, Sparky will be an ambassador for conservation and education. In order to do this updates are needed.”