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Como Zoo

Polar bears Buzz and Neil in their habitat at Como Zoo, ca. 2010. Used with the permission of Como Zoo.

Minnesota's first zoo opened in St. Paul in 1897 with three donated deer in a fenced-in pasture. More than 100 years later Como Zoo continues its mission of animal conservation, education, and family entertainment.

Como Zoo began with a gift of three deer to the City of St. Paul in 1897. By 1902, foxes, elk, and two Cebu (Zebu) cattle joined the deer. Two bison donated by future Lieutenant Governor Thomas Frankson made their debut in 1915. An American black bear, donated by a local citizen in 1926, required the first cage. It was built from iron archways found in the park and covered with strong wire mesh.

The first major improvements came in the 1930s when the Works Progress Administration (WPA) began federally funded construction projects at the zoo. Workers built the Bear Grotto and Monkey Island habitats as well as a barn. The main zoological building, completed in 1937, housed most of the zoo's animals.

The City of St. Paul recommended closure of Como Zoo in 1955, but action on the part of local citizens saved it. Attendance increased when Archie Brand brought his trained sea lion act to Como the following year. The "Sparky the Sea Lion Show” has been a hit with generations of visitors since 1956. A giant Galapagos tortoise named Toby became popular with small children starting in 1958.

John A. Fletcher became the zoo's first director in 1957. During his tenure, wildlife conservation became an important part of the zoo's work as it acquired endangered animals such as gorillas, orangutans, and Siberian tigers. Como's program of loaning great apes to other zoos for breeding and its success in hand-raising Siberian tiger cubs in the late 1950s set an example for other zoos.

In 1966 a metropolitan zoo study determined that Como could not be developed into a major urban zoo. Concerned that the zoo might close, the public again rallied to save it.

In 1976 the Minnesota State Legislature provided funding for the development of a master plan for the zoo’s renovation. The Metropolitan Council approved the plan the next year. Its goals included the careful selection of animals and a breeding program to help preserve them. The zoo planned new support facilities for recreation, conservation, research, and education. The plan included accessibility improvements for visitors with disabilities, energy efficiency, and a multi-use design to maximize public use.

In the 1980s, the master plan led to better habitats for large cats, primates, and African hoofstock, like zebras and giraffes. The Aquatic Animal Building, completed in 1982, met federal regulations for obtaining and caring for marine animals. It houses the zoo's polar bears, harbor seals, and sea lions. It features exhibit space for penguins, sea puffins, and freshwater fish. The renovation of Monkey Island into Seal Island created a better home for seals and sea lions. Como Zoo received its first Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation in 1985.

The Como Park Zoo & Conservatory Visitor Center, with a café and classrooms and space for meetings and events, opened in 2005. It serves as the primary entrance for both the zoo and the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. In 2006, the visitor center unveiled its Tropical Encounters exhibit—an immersive recreation of a Central/South American rainforest. It was the first exhibit to feature animals from Como Zoo and plants from the conservatory.

Polar Bear Odyssey, a 15-million-dollar habitat for the zoo's polar bears, opened in 2010. The expanded environment gives the bears more room to roam and prompts natural behaviors. From a year-round viewing station, visitors learn about climate change and its impact on Arctic animals.

Gorilla Forest opened in June 2013 with seven gorillas on exhibit. It is the largest all-mesh gorilla habitat in North America, with 13,000 square feet of outdoor space. The exhibit area lets the apes climb and play and gives visitors the opportunity to observe their social behavior.

A giraffe feeding station opened in 2015 offering a close-up view of the animals. Como Zoo successfully breeds reticulated giraffes and welcomed its twentieth calf in 2017.

In 2018, the zoo is carrying out an $18.5 million renovation of its sea lion and seal habitat, including Sparky's performance space. The project will be completed in 2019.

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Chhith, Alex. "Como Zoo Welcomes Two New Polar Bears." St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Como Park Zoo & Conservatory.

"Gorilla Forest Exhibit at Como Zoo." YouTube video, 3:41. Posted by "City of Saint Paul Communications Services," June 11, 2013.

Metropolitan Council for the Twin Cities area. A Proposal for a Twin Cities Area Metropolitan Zoological Garden: Report of the Metropolitan Zoo Advisory Committee to the Metropolitan Council. St. Paul: The Committee, 1968.
MinnPost. St. Paul's Como Zoo Takes in Duluth's Displaced Polar Bear and Seals.

Millerbernd, Anne. "Two Como Zoo Polar Bears Set to Leave." Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Nelson, Tim. "So Long, Sparky: Como Zoo Sea Lion Show Heads for Hiatus." MPRnews.

"Polar Bear Odyssey – Final Update!" YouTube video, 3:54. Posted by "comozooconservatory," May 4, 2010.

Rafferty, Rafferty, Mikutowski, and Associates. Como Zoo Master Plan, 1978. St. Paul: The Associates, 1978.

Director's office subject files, 1967–2006
Minnesota State Zoological Board
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Correspondence, reports, and background materials documenting the zoo's relationship with the federal and state governments. Includes substantial files dealing with Como Zoo, Duluth Zoo, Oxbow Park Zoo (Rochester), and others.

Related Images

Buffalo (American bison) at Como Zoo
Buffalo (American bison) at Como Zoo
Animal cages at Como Zoo
Animal cages at Como Zoo
Polar bear at Como Zoo
Polar bear at Como Zoo
Monkey health care at Como Zoo
Monkey health care at Como Zoo
Animal house at Como Zoo
Animal house at Como Zoo
Monkey Island at Como Zoo
Monkey Island at Como Zoo
Aerial view of Como Park
Aerial view of Como Park
Baby gorilla in the Gorilla Forest exhibit, Como Zoo
Baby gorilla in the Gorilla Forest exhibit, Como Zoo
A giraffe at the giraffe feeding station at Como Zoo
A giraffe at the giraffe feeding station at Como Zoo
Polar bears Buzz and Neil in their habitat at Como Zoo
Polar bears Buzz and Neil in their habitat at Como Zoo

Turning Point

State funding approved in 1977 leads to a master plan for improvements in animal habitats and visitor resources at Como Zoo.



A small zoo is started in Como Park with the donation of three deer.


The Works Progress Administration (WPA) completes the Bear Grotto and Monkey Island habitats as well as a main zoo building and a barn.


The Main Zoological Building is completed by the WPA. It houses most of the animals in the zoo.


Sparky the sea lion makes his debut with trainer Archie Brand.


John A. Fletcher is appointed the first director of Como Zoo, with a staff of six and an annual budget of $30,000.


Como becomes the first zoo in North America to successfully hand-raise Siberian tigers. The scarcity of animals in the wild and the vulnerability of cubs born in captivity make intensive care a necessity to ensure the cubs' survival.


The state legislature approves $8.5 million in funding in support of a new master plan for improvements.


Facilities such as the Aquatic Animal Building, Primate Facility, Large Cat Exhibit, and others undergo major renovations and upgrades.


Como Zoo receives its first Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation.


A new Como Park Zoo & Conservatory Visitors Center opens.


Polar Bear Odyssey, a world-class exhibit for polar bears, opens to the public.


Como Zoo receives the Lake Superior Zoo's polar bear, Berlin, and two sea lions when floods damage the animals' habitats in June.


Como Zoo opens its $11 million Gorilla Forest exhibit. It is the largest all-mesh gorilla enclosure in North America and houses seven gorillas.


The zoo begins a $18.5 million renovation of the marine animal habitat and Sparky the sea lion's performance space.