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Como Harbor coming in late 2019

Posted on 07 May 2018 by Calvin

New space at Como Zoo will more closely resemble natural habitat for sea lions and seals and be home to Sparky

Photo above: Como’s seals and sea lions have been living in a space built in the 1930s during the WPA as Monkey Island. The freshwater area was retrofitted for seals and sea lions in the 1970s, and an amphitheater added. (Photo courtesy of Como Zoo)

By TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
Minnesota’s beloved Sparky at Como Zoo is getting new living quarters this year, thanks to a public-private partnership.
In addition to providing a healthier home for the sea lions and seals in the heart of Como Zoo, the $20 million makeover in the existing Seal Island and amphitheater area will also improve the public experience.

Como’s seals and sea lions have been living in a space built in the 1930s during the WPA as Monkey Island. The freshwater area was retrofitted for seals and sea lions in the 1970s, and an amphitheater added.

One of the biggest changes that the new 64,500-square-foot Como Harbor will bring is a transition to salt water.

Photo right: Sparky loves the play and interaction with his humans, and doesn’t mind “hamming it up” for the camera. (Photo courtesy of Como Zoo)

The new heated saltwater environment will minimize the eye and coat irritation that can be caused by freshwater environments pointed out Como Marketing and Public Relations Manager Matt Reinartz. It will increase the animal’s enjoyment of their environment as it will more closely resemble their natural habitat.

Also, because the water will not freeze, they can stay in the same place year-round. Currently, Como Zoo must move pinnipeds off Seal Island every fall with the approach of freezing temperatures, leaving it empty almost half the year. The new design allows for easy underwater transfers from one area to the next.

With the new design, the public will be much closer to the animals and their care and training. At the underwater viewing areas, they will be a pane of glass away. At the care and training stations, the public will see how they live behind the scenes.

Acknowledging that animal training is key to their well-being by keeping them active and engaged, the new facility features a state-of-the-art training facility.

Other upgrades include larger and better bathrooms, a new and better restaurant, and a new picnic area. All of the areas will be fully wheelchair accessible. Plus the design features a shade structure over the new amphitheater.

Pacific coastline design
Designed to reflect a northern Pacific coastline, the exhibit will include rocky outcroppings where seals and sea lions can bask, deeper pools for diving, a natural substrate, and trees and shrubs to provide natural shade throughout the day. The new design will feature an indoor, underwater viewing area similar to the one at Polar Bear Odyssey.

Photo left: The new Como Harbor will open in late 2019. It will feature two saltwater pools and an indoor, underwater viewing area similar to the one at Polar Bear Odyssey. Designed to reflect a northern Pacific coastline, the exhibit will include rocky outcroppings where seals and sea lions can bask, deeper pools for diving, and natural substrate, trees and shrubs to provide natural shade throughout the day. (Image courtesy of Como Zoo)

The updated space will have two new pools, a 5,000-square foot central exhibit pool, and a 900-square foot “Cove Habitat” pool that will dramatically expand the swimming areas for up to eight seals and sea lions 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 which makes it more efficient for training.

Working to rehab animals
“Como is one of the last free zoos in the country. It is also the sixth-most visited, outdrawing the main zoos in New York and Los Angeles,” pointed out Reinartz.

The current Seal Island could not be upgraded for salt water, and the aging infrastructure needed more maintenance. The habitats were not built with training and updated standards of animal management. The space was not expected to meet the new standards and regulations for marine mammal care and conservation about to be released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, and other governing bodies.

Photo right: “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 in some educational programming. Today we see multi-generations visiting and making connections with the animals like Sparky, and our hope is that this will continue for generations,” said Como Marketing and Public Relations Manager Matt Reinartz. (Photo courtesy of Como Zoo)

“If Como does not make the necessary changes, our ability to receive new animals in the future will be limited. Como has been an approved facility working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to bring in animals from the wild that are deemed unreleasable,” said Reinartz.

All of Como’s seals and sea lions are rehabilitated animals—wild animals that had been injured and were rescued but had a physical limitation that prevented a return to the wild.

Subee, for example, was found eight years ago injured on the coast of California and was recommended to Como because the staff has experience with older animals and so could deal with her possible arthritis issues as she ages. Sparky V was the second oldest captive sea lion in North America when he passed away after performing for more than 20 years.

Chino, another seal lion, was found near death with a fishing line caught around his head. The scarring made it impossible for him to fish on his own and so he was deemed nonreleasable. When he arrived at Como, he was underweight and had pneumonia. With the care of the Como team, he recovered and thrived, gaining over 500 pounds. Now he is in a breeding group at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha.

Vision for the future
The update to Seal Island follows the $15 million Polar Bear Odyssey that opened in June 2010 and the $11 million Gorilla Forest that opened in June 2013. These new exhibits are elements of a larger strategic vision for Como, according to Reinartz.

“The new Como Harbor will be the most dramatic example of Como’s vision for the future. The public experience will be more intimate, and the conditions for the animals will be greatly improved,” he said.

Reinartz added, “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 in some educational programming. Today we see multi-generations visiting and making connections with the animals like Sparky, and our hope is that this will continue for generations.”

After seeking funding for several years, the 2017 Minnesota Legislature approved $15 million for the project. Como Friends, the non-profit partner of Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, is raising the remaining needed $4.9 million with gifts from Minnesota foundation, corporations, and individuals.

“This continues the success of the city’s public-private partnership with Como Friends, which has invested more than $38 million in projects and programs since 1999,” said Reinartz. Lancer is also investing in the project to pay for a food service building.

The Marine Mammal Building will remain open during construction, so visitors can continue to see Sparky and the other seals and sea lions, along with the penguins and puffins.

The new Como Harbor will open in late 2019.

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