Gorilla pad poised for extreme makeover

Large and in charge
Schroeder, a 22-year-old lowland gorilla, is one of three bachelor silverbacks at Como Zoo.
MPR photo/Laura Yuen

It's easy to see why a crowd loves the gorillas.

Gordy, Schroeder, and Togo make up a fraternity of class clowns.

One is putting a fire hose in his mouth. Another is whiling away in his hammock, holding his forehead like he's got a migraine. The third one turns his back to the glass and bends over, baring all for his visitors.

Nose to nose
Nathaniel Urke, 10, of Northfield matches his hand to an orangutan behind the glass at Como Zoo. Although many people find Como's exhibits to be small and outdated, they typically allow visitors to get up close to the animals.
Laura Yuen/MPR News

But these bachelors are also a hit for another reason: This small, old-fashioned exhibit guarantees a front-row seat to the action.

Mark and Carla Kewatt of Crosby, Minn., and their two sons are visiting St. Paul over spring break. At larger, contemporary zoos, the Kewatts say they may or may not ever catch a glimpse of their favorite critter. Not so with Como.

"The kids can get up close to the animals. That makes it all worth it," Mark Kewatt said.

While a family can spend an entire day at the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, the free St. Paul zoo appeals to folks who have an hour or two to spare. Both institutions are asking for millions of dollars from the state's capital improvements budget.

Como was once known for its tiny bar-and-cage exhibits. Critics called for the zoo's demise when the Legislature approved construction of the state zoo in the 1970s.

Gorilla lobbyist?
A person in a gorilla costume silently comments on a House bonding bill recommending $11 million for expanded animal exhibits at Como Zoo. His sign reads: "Thank you Democrats for my $11 million." House photographer Tom Olmscheid took the picture the day the House passed its version of the bonding bill. He says he didn't know if the gorilla was a fan of the bill or just being sarcastic: State troopers escorted the gorilla out of the building before Olmscheid could ask.
Courtesy of Tom Olmscheid

But over the past decade, Como has reinvented itself.

Three years ago, the zoo and conservatory underwent their most extreme makeover in a century. The centerpiece is a new visitor center that offers a year-round restaurant, classrooms, and much-needed toilets that replaced an entire bank of Porta-Potties.

That round of improvements cost taxpayers $25 million, and Como raised an additional $8 million in private money.

"I don't have anything against gorillas per se."

Last year, the state approved an additional $9 million for a new polar bear habitat.

Now the zoo is asking for $11 million, mostly for the gorillas. That has rankled some lawmakers, who see it as a misguided priority.

"I don't have anything against gorillas per se," said Republican Marty Seifert, the House minority leader. Earlier this month, Seifert unsuccessfully fought to steer the Como money towards a fund that would maintain worn-down school buildings.

Seifert said $11 million in his town of Marshall could buy a couple dozen McMansions.

"We're talking granite countertops and chandeliers," Seifert said. "Is that what the gorillas are getting?"

Small and steep
Como wants to triple the size of its outdoor gorilla habitat and offer more vantage points for visitors to view the creatures. After Casey the gorilla escaped from his exhibit in 1994, Como erected plywood barriers that block sightlines for small children.
Laura Yuen/MPR News

Not exactly. But it definitely would be an upgrade.The current outdoor exhibit looks like a jungle gym in the middle of a concrete pit. Visitors must look down to view the animals.

But some guests aren't even tall enough to see over the plywood barriers that surround the exhibit. The makeshift fence was built in 1994 after a 350-pound gorilla named Casey cleared the shorter concrete wall and went for a stroll.

"Casey got out, wandered over by the concession area, and ended up wandering back to the habitat on his own," said Mike Hahm, Como's campus manager.

The proposed expansion would triple the gorilla's outdoor space. Hahm said it's possible visitors may be farther away from the animals. But he said the new exhibit would give visitors more vantage points to view the creatures. Radiant heat would emanate from the rocks, so the gorillas could spend more time outdoors.

Proposed habitat
Como Zoo needs $10.2 million in state money to build a roomier habitat for its gorillas. The larger exhibit would allow the zoo to house not only "bachelor" gorillas, but entire families.
Courtesy of Como Zoo

Hahm said Como needs to keep up with the changing industry standards for zoo exhibits.

"There's a potential, a very real potential, that at some point we would not be able to house gorillas anymore," he said. "It's happened at other institutions around the zoo community."

Jackie Sticha heads Como's fund-raising society. She said the price tags for the expanded habitats have raised some eyebrows. But she said the renovations would benefit people as much as the animals. For example, she said visitors have given the zoo an earful over the polar bear exhibit.

"Hands down, it's the number one complaint we receive," she said. "People want to see a bigger exhibit for them, and they want to see them on softer surfaces."

The gorillas' new home would be big enough for entire families, not just bachelors. Zoo managers hope to one day breed the species and teach visitors about their plight.

Gorillas in the wild are endangered. Their forests are being cut down for wood. Poachers are slaughtering the apes for their meat.

Zoo officials hope to tell that story to even bigger crowds after the exhibit renovation. It could come as early as 2012.

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