The 100-year-old Como Park Zoo & Conservatory in St. Paul has opened a new $2.8 million wing, and visitors got their first look over the weekend. The completion of The Ordway Gardens leaves just one more phase in a project that has taken a decade to complete.
On a recent visit to the Como Zoo, 3-year-old Braden and 2-year-old Aubrey Steines pressed their hands and faces against a window in the primate section, peering inside as lanky dark-haired monkeys flew around the room, pushing off every surface, including the window.
Nearby, a 27-year-old gorilla named Schroeder stood in a corner, leaning to one side. A few months ago his longtime companion Togo was sent away. Then three female gorillas showed up. They occupied the other side of the room, away from Schroeder.
Zoo curator John Dee said: "On a scale of gorilla introductions, it was on the better side."
More change is coming, Dee said. Three more new male gorillas are now in standard quarantine before they will be placed in Como's new Gorilla Forest, funded with $11 million allocated by the state Legislature in 2010. The gorillas' world will roughly triple in size, with new wonders like ponds and waterfalls.
Schroeder and his new family will be able to reach the Gorilla Forest through a window at the top of their current home.
Dee said: "Oh, it's going to be fun. What gorillas will do with those features varies from animal to animal, just like people do different things. It'll be interesting to see how they interact with their new digs."
The new male gorillas will be kept separate from Schroeder and the females, because usually there is just one dominant male in a family group.
Gorillas have a 55-year history at Como. But after a 400-pound gorilla named Casey scaled a wall and took a brief walk away from his exhibit in 1994, visitors complained that the gorillas and polar bears needed more room.
In 2003 Como Friends, the nonprofit that supports the zoo and conservatory, laid out a plan to build what became the Polar Bear Odyssey, The Ordway Gardens and the Gorilla Forest.
The plan would dramatically modernize the zoo and conservatory that many Como staff members visited as children.
Like many of them, Jackie Sticha has a photo of herself as a young girl visiting the zoo with her family. It's in her office -- the former home of the first gorilla exhibit, in 1959.
Sticha, the president of Como Friends, said Como has become a tradition passed down by generations of families, and those roots helped to make the 10-year expansion project a success, despite the challenges of the recession; another nearby zoo competing for public money; and skepticism from state legislators.
"It's that sentimentality and those shared memories between different generations in the family that kind of sets us apart," she said, "because of the longevity we have in the community."
Como is one of just four free zoos in major metropolitan areas, Sticha said. Seven out of 10 Como visitors come because it's free or affordable. After the economic downturn in 2009, zoo visitors increased by more than 20 percent and have not declined since then.
In 2010 Como had 2.2 million visitors, the most for any cultural institution in Minnesota. More than three-fourths of them were people who lived outside St. Paul.
"We're not going to be out next year asking our donors to make big gifts for our next campaign, but we're planning for what's next," Sticha said. "And it might sound funny, but as soon as we build a new exhibit, one of the first calls we get is 'What is next?'"
Sticha offered a glimpse of the future: They are working on plans for a new seal and sea lion exhibit, she said.