New Zoo

The Minnesota Zoo has never had gorillas, lions, elephants, or rhinos—and still won’t after its first permanent African exhibit opens this month. But does that matter anymore?

At a recent meet-and-greet held by the Minnesota Zoo, a host of its most monied backers mingled at the Minneapolis Club—far from the animals in Apple Valley. They breakfasted on eggs and sausage amid dark-paneled walls and oil paintings, looking up now and then at a PowerPoint presentation led by the zoo’s director, Lee Ehmke. Eventually, Ehmke paused on a slide depicting lions, gorillas, and the quarterback Brett Favre. What did the animals and the aging athlete have in common? Ehmke explained that they were all large, crowd-pleasing animals, or—in zookeeper’s parlance—“charismatic mega-vertebrates.”

Since the zoo opened, in 1978, it has often been faulted for its distinct lack of such beasts, the sort that visitors to many other zoos take for granted: elephants, rhinoceroses, and yes, lions and gorillas. The Minnesota Zoo has even been accused of not “being complete,” as one legislator put it years ago, raising questions of what a contemporary zoo should look like.

At the meet-and-greet, Ehmke, who has run the zoo since 2000, offered a simple explanation for the big animals’ absence: They’re expensive, both to acquire and to keep, especially African animals and particularly in Minnesota’s climate. The zoo has an annual operating budget of only about $19 million, supplied in part by a fickle state legislature—much less than the budget of other Midwestern zoos, such as those in St. Louis and Milwaukee. “We’re a small-market group,” Ehmke told the zoo’s backers.

But what if the zoo could become more than the sum of its smallish parts? Continuing the slide show, Ehmke flipped to images of the species that will be showcased in “Faces of the African Forest,” opening this month as the zoo’s first permanent exhibit of African animals. Zoo officials say the attraction will be a model, in some ways, for future zoo exhibits and could goose attendance this summer to a record high. The animals include two species of monkeys, fruit bats, rock hyrax (gopher-like creatures), dwarf crocodiles, and Ehmke’s favorite—red river hogs.

From his office at the zoo, Lee Ehmke can see the facility’s empty and crumbling whale tank, a reminder of the zoo’s controversial relationship with big animals. The zoo opened in what many zoo directors now refer to as the “utopian period” of zoo-building, characterized by wide-open, natural spaces—“500 acres and a monorail,” Ehmke muses. It was a reaction to the tile-and-bars aesthetic of many zoo exhibits at the time, such as the Milwaukee Zoo’s quarters for Samson, the largest gorilla ever in captivity: a linoleum cell with a glass wall that he would vigorously assault with all of his 650 pounds. The Minnesota Zoo was conceived as the area’s “new zoo,” in contrast to St. Paul’s Como Zoo, which was smaller and more old-fashioned at the time. It was designed to be, at 485 acres, the most spacious, modern exhibition in the country and planners estimated that the concept would easily draw 2.5 million visitors annually—4 million by the year 2000—and become self-sustaining within a few years.

The execution was less impressive. Only a third of the proposed exhibits were ever built. The contemporary concrete architecture was beyond stark—“Brutalist,” Ehmke calls it—and visitors had difficulty spotting the animals, lounging deep in their pens. Moreover, the creatures were largely unexotic: deer, raccoons, and the like. The zoo’s most charismatic animals, introduced at the opening, were two beluga whales. After they were shipped to the San Diego Zoo in 1987 for health reasons, attendance—which had never topped 1 million visitors—went into a free fall.

In a 1987 report, zoo officials argued that within the “conservation-minded framework” of progressive zoos, “the absence of some of the charismatic mega-vertebrates will no longer be perceived as a deficiency.” Whales, gorillas, rhinos—“All real big, exciting animals,” an official clarified—wouldn’t be missed. But legislators felt duped. When the zoo instead proposed an exhibit of insects, lawmakers declared that the institution had succumbed to “academic elitism.” Governor Rudy Perpich called for the zoo to be spun off as a nonprofit business.

Ehmke can empathize: “No one wants to walk a mile to maybe see a deer,” he says. He was hired a decade ago to add some “wow appeal,” as he put it at the time, to the zoo’s exhibits. Laid-back, with a wry sense of humor, he comes across as more intellectual than idealist. And it was clear he had nothing against charismatic mega-vertebrates: As an exhibit designer at the Bronx Zoo, he’d created its signature attraction, the Congo Gorilla Forest, featuring, well, gorillas—lots of them.

Ehmke is now slowly reversing the Minnesota Zoo’s old layout, creating so-called “immersive exhibits” that draw animals closer to visitors by means of food, heated rocks, and other enticements. For “Russia’s Grizzly Coast,” a $24 million fantasia that opened in 2008, he brought in Amur leopards and grizzly bears, luring them so close to the viewing glass that the bears’ massive heads are occasionally pressed against it. Last year, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums declared “Russia’s Grizzly Coast” the best new exhibit in the country, and attendance spiked by 15 percent over 2008 to a record 1.35 million visitors. Attendance has now increased 40 percent in the last five years, and legislators are pleased: Over the last several years, they’ve awarded the zoo some $66 million, including $21 million this year.

But Ehmke can’t afford to stock every new exhibit with bears or equally large equivalents. Nor does he believe it’s always necessary. “It’s not just about having the crowd pleasers,” he says, echoing the zoo’s former insect proponents. Like them, he believes that contemporary zoos should be in the business of conservation as much as entertainment, helping preserve animals in the wild as well as at home. “All great zoos are committed to taking on the bigger conservation issues of the world,” says Ehmke, “and we want to be perceived as a great zoo.” Going a step further, he says, “If you take away the conservation part, I’m not sure there would be a good reason to have zoos.”


Ehmke now has a simple requirement for all new or remodeled exhibits: “We want to link everything we do here at the zoo to some conservation effort in the place where the animals are from.” In 2008, as the zoo’s designers conceived “Faces of the African Forest,” Ehmke hired Tara Harris, a young conservation biologist who, when she’s not monitoring the zoo’s sustainability measures, studies mountain zebras in Namibia. The next year, the zoo hired Jeff Muntifering, a conservation biologist based in Namibia. In his early thirties, Muntifering tracks black rhinoceroses—a species poached to the brink of extinction—from a base so remote that locals call it World’s End. The two hires tripled the zoo’s conservation department and staked the organization in Africa, the world’s most prominent conservation battleground. The stage for displaying African animals was set.

This emphasis on conservation isn’t expected to draw additional visitors to the Africa exhibit, Ehmke says. (As one zoo director has put it, no one goes to zoos “to eat their vitamins.”) But if it’s not a pull, it might just be a push. In his office, Ehmke keeps a paper written by former Bronx Zoo director Bill Conway, revered in zoo circles as the father of modern zoo exhibitions, called “How to Exhibit a Bullfrog: A Bedtime Story for Zoo Men.” (“The gender reference tells you how long ago we’re talking,” Ehmke notes.) In the paper, Conway imagines an amazing exhibit centered around the common bullfrog—or rather, its engaging environment: a periscope shows a small-mouth bass fanning its eggs, cutaway tunnels reveal amphibians. Conway suggests that well-designed displays open the door to exhibits about habitats, rather than any particular species, much less large ones. “The idea was that any animal could be interesting if exhibited and interpreted creatively,” Ehmke says.

Among Ehmke’s favorite zoos is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, in Tucson, which encompasses just 21 acres and displays no animals larger than black bears (the smallest are ants). The evocative settings, approximating the Sonora Desert, steal the show. The Santa Barbara Zoo, in southern California, recently opened a similar exhibit called Rattlesnake Canyon, which uses reptiles and amphibians to represent the habitat of the nearby Los Padres National Forest. “There’s a lot you can do with small things,” says Rich Block, the zoo’s chief executive officer.

If the Minnesota Zoo’s original designers had the right idea about conservation highlighting the importance of humble creatures—and vice versa—they may have been wrong about the presentation. “What’s changed,” says Ehmke, “is that we’ve realized we’re not re-creating nature. We’re not giving the animals a natural existence—they live at the zoo. They’re being managed by people, which in many cases doesn’t mean turning them loose on five acres and calling it a day.” In other words, you don’t put the bullfrog in a swamp. You put it in a nightclub.

Faces of the african Forest” is located on the zoo’s Tropics Trail, a balmy indoor garden the size of one-and-a-half football fields. The space is among the zoo’s signature attractions and a popular spot for weddings (vows are typically exchanged under a thatched hut), although no marriages will be consecrated there this summer. It’s being remodeled with a stronger conservation focus to house animals from five so-called hot spots, habitats with high biodiversity that are also highly threatened.

Ehmke stands inside the Africa exhibit amid artisans shaping concrete into ersatz trees and vines. “Naturalistic,” Ehmke calls the exhibit, not natural. The space is long and tall but not deep, like a diorama. The animals will be up front—the crocodiles lounging in pools, the monkeys in the trees—and Ehmke’s signature tricks will showcase even the least charismatic species in unusual ways. “Crocs are immobile except maybe twice a day,” Ehmke explains, so he’s designed an overhead pool that allows views of the reptiles from below. A zookeeper hidden inside a hollow “tree” can unleash food through a tubelike “branch” into a clearing in the exhibit, drawing the monkeys into the open. Kids can get closer looks by crawling into a log that juts into the exhibit, surreptitiously surveying the action through viewing portholes. “It’s like set design,” Ehmke says.

In this artificial environment, the animals become “ambassadors,” Ehmke says, for their embattled brethren in the real world. As such, they have the potential to deliver a conservation message to an immense audience—about 180 million people annually visit the 221 zoos accredited by the AZA (by contrast, the Sierra Club and World Wildlife Federation each have just over 1 million members). “The Nature Conservancy and groups like that are great,” says Rick Barongi, head of the Houston Zoo and one of the field’s most vocal proponents of conservation. “But zoos attract more people. They’re probably the best billboard advertisement that animals can have.”

Animals also deliver the message in an almost personal way, argues Block of the Santa Barbara Zoo. “People develop a relationship with the animals they love at the zoo,” he says. “So when they are approached by a World Wildlife Federation, or any other conservation group, they are that much more in tune with the message—and more willing to part with the dollars. I’ve never formed a relationship with any conservation group because of Animal Planet.”

Block is quick to add, though, that people are more likely to bond with, say, gorillas than hyrax—no matter how well they’re presented. “Those big charismatic vertebrates,” he muses. “The fact is, having those icons at the forefront raises visibility.” Tigers and pandas are popular. “Whales do well, too,” he adds.

Zoos may have changed immensely over the years—“About the only thing that resembles zoos of the past is that we have animals on exhibit,” says Block—but the public’s perception of them hasn’t changed as much. “The public has a certain expectation to see gorillas,” says AZA executive director Jim Maddy. “The exotic animals.” In later years, even Bill Conway conceded the limits of his bullfrog theory. As Ehmke wanders through the African exhibit, he clarifies that the zoo would love to have more charismatic animals and says it plans to build a penguin exhibit soon. “I would love to have gorillas,” he says. But they need to be in large social groups, they need more stimulus, and the cost of care is high. “We are constantly trying to balance the natural attractiveness of those charismatic mega-vertebrates,” he says, “with what works at our zoo.”

Ehmke notes that initial concepts for what later became “Russia’s Grizzly Coast” did not include grizzly bears. Zoo officials debated the value of displaying a large animal versus the cost, and concluded that in order to make the splash it was looking for, it needed a heavyweight—a species, frankly, that would look good on posters. Otters weren’t enough. Nor were leopards. “Not all animals,” Ehmke says, “are created equal.”