Daniel Sperling was expecting a very special guest at his wedding last September. Just days before the big event, though, the star attendee hit a certain snag.

Minneapolis resident Sperling and his fiancée, Kristina Geiger, were getting married at Como Zoo in St. Paul, right next to the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. As part of the event rental, they requested the presence of Stefano, an adorable two-toed sloth.

There was just one problem: “Sloths only poop once a week,” Sperling explained. “On the day or two before, it’s extremely irritable and you’re not supposed to go near it.” If Stefano couldn’t go No. 2, zoo staff explained, he wouldn’t be a pleasant plus-one.

Thankfully, Stefano did his business just in time.

“We’re glad it worked out for him,” Sperling said, laughing.

Stefano is just one of many “animal ambassadors” available for on-site events at Como Zoo. Armadillos, parrots, snakes, turtles and a giant cockroach also partake in the program, designed to educate eventgoers while sweetening the deal for private rentals. Booking an animal ambassador costs an extra $250 per hour.

“We have a lot of great wedding stories,” said education and conservation curator Susie Van Blaircom. “It’s something fun for the guests. It’s something new and unique, something they’re not necessarily used to seeing.” With his cute little tuxedo, Cupid the South African penguin is a popular option for nuptials.

Wedding guests can stop by to meet these ambassadors, Van Blaircom said, with an education specialist standing by to answer any questions.

The creatures “just kind of hang out,” she said. “They don’t walk around; they are definitely in a restricted area.”

Stefano the sloth, for example, came to the Sperling reception with a rope (to keep visitors at a safe distance) and a portable tree. “It didn’t do much,” Sperling said. “It just kind of sat there and sometimes moved its arm.

“But that’s all it has to do because it’s so adorable,” he continued. “People liked taking their pictures with it.”

More than a wedding guest

After her engagement, Danica Alvarez knew she wanted to get married at the zoo. “I spent a lot of time there growing up,” she said. “And my fiancé and I actually got engaged there,” right next to that romantic glass conservatory.

The Northfield resident surprised everyone — even herself — by requesting a fruit bat for the occasion.

“The fruit bats were not something we thought of right away, obviously,” Alvarez said. “It’s kind of a different animal; a lot people think they’re gross. We wanted something really, really unique.” Even though confined to a glass cage, the creature seemed to enjoy himself, she said. “Fruit bats are pretty social. They like attending events.”

Wedding guests were invited to grab a drink and check in on the animal to learn more. “They’re a lot bigger than I expected,” Alvarez said. “They’re probably around 6 inches tall.”

The same thing happened with Stefano at the Sperling wedding. Aside from hearing about the sloth’s infrequent bowel movements, guests learned why the mammal’s fur has a green tint (because there’s algae in there).

Animal ambassadors aren’t restricted to weddings. “If 3M were to book an event,” Van Blaircom said, “they might book an animal ambassador.”

St. Mary’s Health Clinics recently hosted a volunteer appreciation event at the zoo, inviting the ever popular Cupid as a VIP guest.

Needless to say, volunteers did not expect to find themselves hobnobbing with a penguin. “They were genuinely surprised,” said volunteer Chris Hanson, who delighted in watching the bird eat.

A zoo employee taught the group about Cupid’s impressive swimming skills and his surprisingly long life expectancy. (Cupid is 27 years old.) Everyone got a kick out of watching him pooh-pooh substandard servings of fish.

“It was pretty educational for all of us,” Hanson said.


Christopher Shea is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.