Sparky the sea lion may soon get new digs.
Plans for a $14.8 million extreme makeover for the home of the ever popular sea lion and his fellow frolicking marine mammal friends at St. Paul’s Como Zoo were unveiled Thursday by zoo officials.
The new world-class habitat, to be attached to the zoo’s Marine Mammal Building and encompass Seal Island, calls for a large amphitheater for the sea lion shows — a zoo staple since 1956 — and would allow the animals to be outdoors in the winter. It also would include three behind-the-scenes pools for animal training and two saltwater pools that would allow visitors to watch the sea lions and seals from above and below the water level, views similar to those at the nearby Polar Bear Odyssey building.
Plans call for all but $1 million of the project’s cost to be financed with general-obligation bonds, which the zoo plans to request in the coming legislative session, said Michelle Furrer, Como Zoo’s campus manager/director. The rest would come from private donors, she said.
The project, when complete, would benefit the animals and the people who come to enjoy them, she said.
“Even on a day like today, the animals could be outdoors in their natural habitat,” she said. Sparky is more than an entertainer, she said. The sea lion is an ambassador for his species. When visitors see the sea lion interacting with the trainer, they learn more. “This will give us more opportunities to make more of those one-on-one connections, even in a large crowd.”
Because they’ll be outdoors at times in the winter, the marine mammals will have to bulk up with an extra layer of blubber, added Allison Jungheim, senior zookeeper, but “they do enjoy being outside and they can tolerate the weather really well.”
Part of the impetus for the project are impending federal rules on marine mammals in captivity. The improvements are essential for the zoo to keep the animals for generations to come.
The new rules require zoos to provide a saltwater habitat for the seals and sea lions, Jungheim said. The animals, which are classified as pinnipeds, are housed in freshwater pools at several zoo locations. It isn’t detrimental to them, she said, but they prefer salt water.
“So we really want to be ahead of the game,” she said. “It’s one of the biggest regulatory changes that’s coming online, so we want to be sure we can manage these animals properly for years to come.”
If the Legislature approves the bonding request, ground could be broken by the middle of 2015 and the project could be completed by 2017, Furrer said.
The $13.8 million bonding request for the zoo is in addition to $8.9 million in transportation and access improvements for the surrounding Como Regional Park, which was included in Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed bonding request to the Legislature. The request included no funding for the zoo.
Those numbers are dwarfed by the $53.3 million in bonding requests from the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley.
The project is part of Como Zoo’s ongoing transformation, Furrer said, both in its physical layout and in its mission of education and conservation. Seal Island, where the new project would be located, replaced the former Monkey Island — a Depression-era project of the Works Progress Administration — in the 1980s. Seal Island was not built to be a year-round exhibit.
“Like with all of these projects, it’s not about getting bigger,” she said. It’s about getting better at what we do and creating world-class exhibits.”