An $11 million expansion at the Como Zoo will give visitors a new look at one of the zoo's key attractions: a new home for a group of seven gorillas, six of them new to Minnesota.
The new outdoor primate yard, which is covered by a giant mesh tent, opens to the public Thursday morning. It is about three times the size of the old enclosure a pair of gorillas once occupied.
Gone is the old timber play structure, the concrete moat that separated the animals from the visitors and the pit-like yard people looked down into to see the animals.
The new exhibit has real trees and real grass. It also offers gorillas higher ground than visitors, which the animals prefer. There's even a 14-foot picture window. Zoo officials hope it's an ideal place to raise a family.
"Schroeder, one of our resident males, is now living with a group of three females," said Adam Nigon, one of the zoo keepers. "So I'm assuming that is a good change for him.
"Hopefully, in a couple of years, we'll have little ones running around." Nigon said the zoo also may add other primates, such as other monkey species and perhaps birds. The new primate yard, he said, gives the zoo a lot of flexibility.
The Gorilla Forest is the newest of a series of high-profile expansions for a zoo that started as a fenced pasture with three deer in 1897. Since 2006, Como Zoo has added a Tropical Encounters exhibit and a $5 million polar bear odyssey.
Those efforts have remade what was once a relic of the Work Progress Administration that constructed public projects across the country as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal. But for many years, the zoo kept animals in barred indoor cells.
The new gorilla exhibit is much larger and more secure than the previous, open-topped design. One gorilla, Casey, made a celebrated escape from the old exhibit at Como in 1994.
Zoo Director Michele Furrer said planners consulted some of the leading experts in gorillas around the country. They also looked at standards established by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for keeping animals as healthy and happy as possible.
"We wanted to make sure that we had a world-class habitat," she said. "So many of the elements that you'll see on the public side, as well as behind the scenes for the care of the gorillas, we've taken extra care to make sure we not only met those standards, but exceeded those."
Furrer said people are responding well to new exhibits like the Polar Bear Odyssey and Tropical Encounters, in part because Como allows visitors to be eye to eye with animals like a Hoffman's two-toed sloth and African lions. She said the new Gorilla Forest will have similar features -- including an outdoor glass wall to separate the gorillas from people. Those features, she said, are reflected in the zoo's growing attendance numbers, which rose from about 1.5 million visitors a year in the late 1990s to more than 2 million.
That rivals the attendance at Twins baseball games in recent years. Mayor Chris Coleman, who has pushed for the most recent developments, said they've made Como an economic engine, drawing visitors and tens of thousands of school kids to make a connection with St. Paul.
The city obtained the $11 million in funding from the state legislature in 2010 to build the gorilla exhibit. Coleman said it is a good investment.
"If you took the number of people that go to Como on a regular basis, whether they're going to the zoo, or they're going to the Conservatory on a February day when they just need any feel of spring, it is absolutely one of the biggest destinations in the state of Minnesota," Coleman said.
The zoo is open every day year round, with no admission, although visitors are asked to make a voluntary donation.