Monday morning at Como Park Zoo: It was 37 degrees with a biting wind and one more notable condition. A full parking lot.
Como may not get the respect it deserves from political cheap shot artists. But it gets the public -- by the millions.
Como often is a scapegoat for cheapskate grandstanders, despite an agreement with the state, made when the Minnesota Zoo was funded, to maintain Como as a free, user-friendly city zoo where children can actually see zoo animals. Despite the frequent attacks, Como has thrived and survived to become one of the most-loved family amenities in Minnesota, and the most-visited one.
An estimated 1.7 million people a year visit the zoo and conservatory, which are open 365 days a year and free to the public (donations of $2 per adult and $1 per child are suggested).
The zoo provides what director Mike Hahm calls "a nose-to-nose experience" with wildlife. Nine of the 10 most popular zoo species are found at Como (only elephants are missing) and if you have kids, or ever were a kid, you know that Como is a family tradition for thousands of Minnesotans.
Not just in St. Paul: Eighty-four percent of visitors come from elsewhere, including Kim Frantz of Prior Lake, who was visiting the zebras on Monday with her children, Ravlin, 2, and Nissa, 1.
"We like Como because we read books to the kids about animals at the zoo, and they are all here," she said. "If you go to the Minnesota Zoo, you might see three kinds of buffaloes, and that rings the bell too, sometimes. But here, you're going to see zebras and giraffes."
"This is the people's zoo," said Lisa McGinnity, of St. Anthony, who was visiting the primates with her daughter Riley, 9, and Riley's "most fantabulous" friend, Kaylee. "We come to Como at least once a month, and I've been coming since I was a kid.
"We love it here."
Unfortunately, real people's preferences don't always count in the jousting of politicians. Como got a whipping last week from Tim the Terrible Pawlenty, who took out his wrath on Democrats by axing every item of investment in the city of St. Paul, including the Central Corridor train and the zoo -- a total of $127 million from the place Pawlenty used to think of as "the city" whenever he thought of going to one (he grew up in South St. Paul, the steak-supply side of town).
Perhaps Gov. Pawlenty has decided he will be leaving St. Paul to move into the vice presidential bunker in Washington. All I know is that no one who loves the capital city of Minnesota would sign off on $75 million for new hockey rinks across Minnesota while slashing the state's favorite zoo.
Yes, I have a brother in the St. Paul mayor's office who is steamed at T-Paw. But the brother can take care of himself. This is personal with me. It's not about the mayor. I have loved Como Zoo since before I could walk. And I have a bunch of kids who have done the same. They love Como Zoo, and I hope they take their kids to Como long after I am gone.
Pawlenty's line-item vetoes of the DFL bonding bill gave it to Como Zoo in the shorts. Como lost $800,000 to finish a new polar bear exhibit that is just under way and, more critically, lost $10.2 million to overhaul the zoo's gorilla exhibit. That was the project that made Republican House Minority Leader Marty Seifert howl like a hyena.
Seifert made the gorilla plan sound as opulent as a Pohlad mansion on Lake Calhoun, ridiculing it as even more lavish than a place with hot tubs, brass beds and a giant garage.
As usual today, I will take pity on Young Marty, who is from Marshall and does not understand much beyond ethanol plants. He even said the state has to choose between school kids or gorillas. What?! The gorillas are for the kids, of course.
Como and the Minnesota Zoo (which didn't get much this year, either) are educations for all. I'd be happy to prove it by showing Seifert around the people's zoo sometime. I'll be the one walking upright.
Hahm, the zoo director, is nicer than I am. He takes the Como bashing in stride, and is optimistic the gorilla exhibit will be funded in time to begin work after the Polar Bear Odyssey opens in 2010.
"The people always rally around Como," says Hahm, who grew up near the zoo. "This is a set back for the gorillas, and we've got to re-group. But we will move forward, because Como Zoo is a community tradition loved by the people. They understand it and support it.
"They always have. And I always have a smile on my face when I am on the grounds."
That's the thing about Como Zoo. The people keep coming. Generation after generation. And they keep loving it.
They won't quit.
Nick Coleman • firstname.lastname@example.org