The Minnesota Zoo is proposing a dramatic new vision for the 41-year-old attraction, aiming to connect visitors to the natural world through camping opportunities, a nature-based preschool and adventure rope courses rather than new exotic animal exhibits.
“Certainly, it’s very different than what a lot of people, the baby boomer generation, think of zoos,” said Frank Weidner, chairman of the zoo’s board of trustees. “It holds true to the mission of conservation … but really re-imagines how we do that.”
Many zoos nationally are heading in the same direction, offering experiences like camping as an antidote to technology-focused lives. Minnesota’s plan comes as some zoo officials across the country are rethinking the purpose of zoos amid debates about the ethics of keeping exotic animals in captivity.
But the Minnesota Zoo is unusual, experts said, in the ambitions of its facilities plan and the amount of land — about 485 acres of woods and prairies — it can devote to outdoor pursuits.
”It sounds like your Minnesota Zoo is going all in on this,” said Allen Nyhuis, the author of two books on zoos in the United States.
Key projects include the $22 million Treetop Trail, which would transform the zoo’s defunct monorail track into what would likely be the country’s longest elevated trail loop; a rock-climbing facility, to go up in the vacant IMAX theater; and paved trails, a lodge and several camping options. Think not only cabins, but also yurts with bathrooms and electricity.
“The Treetop Trail is what’s got everybody buzzing,” said Charlene Briner, vice chairwoman of the zoo board. “They like the idea that we are redeploying and modernizing an asset that is right now unused.”
The facilities plan, which officials described as a tool kit to guide future projects, is the first developed by Director and President John Frawley, who arrived at the zoo in 2016. It was presented to the board in November after several years of discussion and planning.
The plan aims to make the zoo easier to navigate, renovate aging elements such as the animal hospital and parts of the Tropics Trail, and fix infrastructure such as bridges, roads and roofs, some of which are crumbling.
The zoo, which typically receives about one-third of its budget from the state, is seeking $39 million from the Legislature in 2020. That request includes $11 million for the Treetop Trail, $15.5 million for revitalization projects and $12.5 million for repairs and updates.
The plan makes financial sense, Frawley said. Officials estimate that revenue streams created by the nature preschool and campsites alone would annually net more than $700,000.
“I think Minnesotans and the state expect us to be a smart business model,” he said.
Frawley said he wants to boost the zoo’s appeal to people of all ages, abilities and communities by offering accessible outdoor activities that even nature newbies would enjoy.
“We want to be a zoo for everyone, not just traditional zoogoers,” he said. “We can help be a conduit or gateway to other nature experiences.”
While the nature concept may seem a departure from the zoo’s traditional focus, Frawley and several board members said it aligns with the zoo’s longtime mission “to connect people, animals and the natural world to save wildlife.”
The theme links to health and wellness, he said, since the benefits of being outside are widely accepted. People who have fun outdoors will value conservation more, he said.
The zoo’s new plan is “definitely a change” from previous ones, said Lee Ehmke, who ran the Minnesota Zoo from 2000 to 2015. His blueprint for the zoo eight years ago included a large African exhibit with giraffes and rhinos, a vision that never materialized.
People come to zoos for more than just animals, Ehmke said. But he added that with features like the 1.3-mile Treetop Trail, “there probably needs to be, and I assume there will be, some animal components.”
Ehmke is president and CEO of the Houston Zoo, which sits on 55 acres — a fraction of the Minnesota Zoo’s vast tract. “There’s so much land and so much nature to take advantage of” in Apple Valley, he said.
Frawley said the zoo’s new plan will keep exhibits and other parts of the zoo modern and in good shape. For example, it would give more space to the snow monkey exhibit and make the monkeys visible from the lakeside area. It also proposes to reopen the shuttered nocturnal trail and redesign the exhibit featuring red pandas and wild sheep.
The plan envisions “encounters” with animals in the new spaces, such as an elk herd that people could hike out to see, he said, or zookeepers bringing certain animals to campsites or to the Treetop Trail. As tried-and-true exhibits are updated, new animals may be added if it makes sense, he said.
Briner said that maintaining the zoo’s identity and focus on animals was “top of mind” for the board. “We don’t want to become like a nature amusement park,” she said.
Officials said they weren’t concerned that the zoo’s outdoor features would compete with existing programs or state or regional parks.
Tom Landwehr, a former Department of Natural Resources commissioner, called the plan “bold and innovative.” He said DNR campgrounds often are full in the summer, so there’s no shortage of demand. The zoo’s plan would provide “gateway opportunities” for hiking, fishing or camping in a safe, convenient spot, he said.
“I look at it as kind of a value-added, not as a substitution for what [the zoo] is historically doing,” said Landwehr, who sat on the zoo’s Nature Task Force. “It could be a conservation and outdoor skills-building university.”
He said zoo officials debated whether developing the zoo’s acreage — cutting down trees to build trails, for instance — was consistent with its mission. In the end, he said he believes it’s a “high level trade-off.”
The first piece to materialize, with completion slated for 2022 if funding comes through, will be the Treetop Trail. More than $11 million in private funding has been raised for the trail, more than the zoo has ever brought in before a legislative session, Frawley said.
“That, to me, shows people want this,” he said. “People are excited about this new direction.”