I love Como Zoo. It’s right between the cities, admission is whatever you opt to donate, and in its relatively compact space, it has an astounding variety of creatures to watch over as they do creature things. I go there every year with my dad. It’s the perfect Father’s Day destination no matter what age you and your dad are. Looking at creatures is good for everyone.The orangutans come first. The gentle brutes have a towering jungle gym to climb around. It’s always mind boggling, watching the orange apes with their big bellies swing effortlessly from rope to pole to crow’s nest. They’re given a new stimulus every day, which when I last went meant plastic kiddie pools. They would nonchalantly drag the things around, thoughtfully taking turns peeling them to shreds as easily as I could a piece of crepe paper. The orangutans are wonderful because they’re in love with each other. They kiss and preen and hold impossibly cute babies that they dote over in their little happy world.
The gorillas come next. The mothers are accustomed to taking refuge from the sun with their little ones in the shade by a window where you can get up close to look. The glass is a very welcome feature, as father gorilla comes by every now and then to make sure that everyone’s behaving. This is a guy who reminds you that no matter how many hours you put in at the gym, you’ll never be able to twist a tire into a figure eight shape with your bare hands.
On to the monkey house. Little emperor tamarins bounce around like they’re on springs, and with their grandiose mustaches, they look like they just sprang out of a Dr. Seuss drawing. Sloths demonstrate why they’re named after a certain cardinal sin, and lemurs recline and flick around their striped tails and eat fruit in the sun.
The hooved fellows welcome you next. Zebras and kudu graze in their big area. It must be nice, not having to look over their shoulders all the time for cheetahs and lions and any other vicious things that perceive them as lunch. The giraffes lope around and pluck leaves from their high up feeding stations. You can feed them from a platform. They wrap their enormous tongues around your hand to pluck romain from your fingers. Hand sanitizer is thoughtfully placed nearby.
From there you can go see the predators. The wolves are shy, but make appearances to glare disapprovingly at the children lined up to howl for them. The tiger, the biggest cat on earth, takes naps and prowls around his domain, always ready in case a zebra should make an escape and a subsequent terrible decision. What immortal hand or eye, could frame thy fearful symmetry? The lions, more sociable than the tiger, loll around on their turf together, far more indifferent to the children’s imitations of their bellows than the wolves are. It is highly inadvisable to fall over the railing here.
Musk oxen are nearby, in all their musky glory. Dall’s sheep demonstrate feats of balance on their little cairns, and the far less acrobatic bison look on. From there you may go to see the seals dart around the giant craggy pool in the center of the zoo, or go to see the seals’ worst nightmare in the polar bear habitat. I had heard that polar bears are huge, but nothing can prepare you for the massiveness of these half ton, achromatic arctic threshers. They wriggle around weightlessly in the water, and they take special pleasure in inspecting the hors d’oeuvre sized kids who sidle up for a better look.
An amphitheater for sea lion tricks attracts crowds, and the giant pinnipeds may be seen playing in their pool when they’re not performing. The nearby penguins hobble around their rocks and fly beneath the water. Just outside, lumbering Galapagos tortoises sun bathe and know things only turtles can know. The pink flamingoes provide an amazing contrast to the penguins. That these could both be birds is a great feat of nature.
These are only some of the zoo’s animal guests. Once you’ve seen enough things that pounce and roar, you can walk through the greenhouse and see plants which Minnesotan weather would render to frozen ashes in a split second if it could only have its way. Palms and flowers and atavistic ferns rule over this sanctuary. Here is the sunken garden, a technicolor wonderland of flowers and lily pads and water. Entering this area is transformative, so much so that even the children fall into a reverent awe at the splendor of its serenity.
Just outside are the Japanese bonsai, meticulously kept tiny trees that are older than I am. Around the corner is The Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese garden, St. Paul’s tribute to her sister city, Nagasaki. Strolling around it has the same effect as I imagine meditation would. I have never meditated. I watch too much TV.
The Blooming Butterfly exhibit will open in mid-June. Hundreds and hundreds of butterflies from three continents will flutter by, little stained glass wings beating against nothing to drink nectar from tropical plants in their enclosure. The zoo obtains special permissions to display the non-native ephemeral beauties. For most, this will be the only place they could ever see these butterflies.
There is a well-equipped amusement park nearby that’s perfect for kids as well a giant, antique stand alone carousel blaring hypnotic calliope music by the zoo’s entrance. If you would like to enjoy all of this without worrying about parking at the busy zoo, you may take the shuttle from the much bigger parking lot at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds on the south side of Como Ave. It runs constantly, so you only need park and wait for your outing with the animals. Go to remind yourself that the only animals aren’t the ones you see at work every day.
By David Scheller