(photography by Raakel Toppila)
A great day today at the Minnesota Zoo. We spent the morning with Director Lee Ehmke, Horticulture Supervisor Kim Thomas, and Ken Kornack, Director of Capital Projects at the Zoo. After meeting Lee at the entrance, we explored the newest exhibit, “Russia’s Grizzly Coast.” The three grizzly bears are part of a new trend in immersive zoo display that seeks to engage the senses and create a seemingly boundless natural space surrounding the animals. Plant materials mask the surrounding buildings, key sightlines are emphasized, and sound recordings draw visitors into a more intimate experience. And by visitors, I mean children. Lots of them. Everywhere. The bears are a huge hit.
Kim Thomas’ lean crew of horticulturalists throughout the year has the unique job of creating regional and species appropriate displays. This is easier said than done, considering the physical demands on the plants. For example, Kim quickly discovered that grizzly bears do not pick blue berries. They just eat the entire bush in one bite. Thankfully, hundreds of acres of surrounding woodlands provide an abundance of animal browsing materials.
In the new Leed Gold meeting space behind the grizzly den, the Fellows had the chance to ask Lee and his team what it’s like to manage a zoo serving over 1 million visitors each year. The organization is one of two publicly owned zoos in the country, and covers 485 acres just south of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and equidistant from both. The zoo is moving towards a denser model of visitor circulation, including a more intense experience over a smaller area. The older zoo design of “five hundred acres and a monorail” essentially failed. The wildlife was too far removed from the visitors to create a meaningful experience.
In addition to managing a wide array of species from dolphins to tapirs, the Zoo boasts a 1,500-person amphitheater for musical performances, several green roof projects, and an active outreach program visiting each of the 87 counties in Minnesota. Over lunch, the staff covered everything from the master plan to their young friends group, and provided rare insight into their much-loved institution in the suburbs of the Twin Cities.