Interview: Minnesota Zoo Director John Frawley

Frawley talks llamas, conservation, and his favorite zoo animal
Minnesota Zoo director John Frawley and a clydesdale horse

Courtesy Minnesota Zoo

Llamas are trending, according to Minnesota Zoo director John Frawley. “I was at Target the other day, and I must have seen three different T-shirts with llamas on them,” he says. “I’ve heard of people doing llama yoga. I don’t know if we’re gonna do that, but who knows?” He’s referring to this summer’s special exhibit, “Llama Trek,” open May 25 through Labor Day. While bonding with the zoo’s debut llamas—among other South American animals like guinea pigs and emu-like rheas—visitors can learn about efforts to support wild chinchillas in Chile. That’s been Frawley’s goal since he took the helm in 2016: to help people empathize with animals, then show them how to support their natural habitats. The Mankato State University grad worked in Texas and California before bringing his mission back to his home state, where he is working to make the zoo more accessible, inclusive and natural. As Frawley puts it, “The only thing that justifies all the work that we do in the zoos is what we give back through our conservation program.”

So, we have to ask. Favorite zoo animal?

Minnesota Zoo director John Frawley
Minnesota Zoo director John Frawley

Courtesy Minnesota Zoo

As a zoo director, probably the most dangerous question you could ever answer with your staff listening is “What’s your favorite animal?” I get that question more than any other question. But, as a good zoo director would, I have a really good answer: My favorite animal is a healthy animal. I will answer it a little bit, just to be honest. This [past] summer was fun because we got two new Clydesdale horses on our Wells Fargo Family Farm. They’re half-brothers, 4- and 5-year-olds, Frank and Ritchie. They’re like gentle giants. When I met them, they came over and nuzzled me. 

What’s a zoo-related memory that has stuck with you for years?

The Minnesota Zoo opened in 1978, and when I was in my early 20s, I took my girlfriend on a date here, who’s now my bride—my wife, Anita. I have a photo of us, of her and I standing in front of the camel exhibit on a hot summer day, on a date. It was the current Bactrian [two-humped] camel exhibit that’s still here today. The zoo, animals—I’ve been close to nature and animals my whole life.

What first drew you to nature and animals?

My family lived in Red Wing, and I spent a lot of time outdoors. I got to have nature and woods surround me. I grew up hunting and fishing, like a lot of young people do in Minnesota, and I had some great mentors who took me out. So, just that time alone, and that time hiking through the woods—it meant a lot to me. There’s a lot of stress, I think, on kids these days. I just had this space that was calming and inspiring to me. I lived outside. If you talk to my mom and dad, [they say] John was always out cross-country skiing, or fishing, or hiking or doing something outside pretty much all day long. Now, I think it’s driving me to make sure it’s there for others, and others are exposed to it.

You worked in San Francisco for 20 years. What did you miss about the Twin Cities?

Both of my daughters had moved back to Minnesota, and my mom and dad are still thankfully alive, and my brothers and sisters still live here, so family was a big thing I missed. I really missed the four seasons of Minnesota. I’m one of those people who embraces and likes winter. And I missed the small town community feel. We support and take care of each other. It’s just a humbler state than how I felt in California. 

Describe your role as director of the Minnesota Zoo.

The zoo is powered by a lot of really great people. The board is 60 members, the staff is over 300, and the volunteers are over 1,200. On top of that, we have a Minnesota Zoo Foundation. My ultimate job is to make sure I’m providing those passionate people the tools they need to do their jobs. I work with a lot of legislators; one third of our funding comes from the state. We’ve spent a lot of time the last couple years with a focus on connecting people to the natural world. You know this, but the average kid in our country right now is behind technology 8 to 10 hours a day and outside less than one. We think the zoo could play a big role in changing that.

What don’t people realize about zoos?

A lot of people will say, “Shouldn’t the animals just be in the wild?” When something is threatened or endangered, that tells you that the habitat in the wild isn’t going so well. The International Union of Conservation of Nature’s red list is at over 25,000 species of animals. As they keep assessing species, the number of endangered and threatened species is just going to grow. The real message is that the wild is just not the wild as we think it is. One hundred years ago, zoos were more menageries, collections of animals, and over the years, zoos have evolved into conservation tools. We have great breeding programs. We manage our collections so that we have genetic diversity. We’re able to have captive populations to buy time for ecosystem protections and planning to come into play. Who has that kind of infrastructure around the country and around the world? Zoos do.

What’s surprising about the Minnesota Zoo?

The average zoo in the country is less than 65 acres. People don’t realize that we’re a roughly 500-acre zoo. We’re probably the fifth-largest zoo in the country based on area. We’re also one of the biggest environmental educators in the state. We reach over 400,000 people a year with educational programming. Another thing people don’t realize: Many of our animals are orphaned. A lot of people think we collect animals from the wild. Really, it’s the opposite. The animals come to us. Our bears, our wolves were orphans; our moose were orphans. A lot of the animals we have needed a home, or they would have never survived.

How does conservation tie into the Minnesota Zoo’s mission?

If you have a connection to animals or a connection to nature, you want them to survive. If you really love these animals and you want to help us with protecting turtles in Minnesota, or protecting butterflies that are going extinct in Minnesota, or bringing bison back to Minnesota—or even if you’re into international conservation, like black rhinos that are critically threatened—we have these great conservation programs that can bridge you into making a difference for animals in the wild.

What’s one plan for the zoo going forward?

We have a couple hundred acres of woods, and we’d love to connect people and kids to them. We’ve talked about cabins and tent sites and zip lines and rope courses and really going in more of a “nature” direction.

What’s your ideal Twin Cities Day?

Morning: I live in Welch down by Red Wing, about 40 minutes south of the zoo. It’s in the country, and I love waking up, usually between 6:30 and 7 a.m., and having a nice, slow start to my day. I don’t drink coffee, so I start off with an iced tea. We restored an old creamery, so I putz around there and take my tea down to the Cannon River. It’s really about being out in nature and being outdoors for me. 

Afternoon: If it’s a really fun weekend day, I’d bring my grandkids to check in at the zoo for an hour to say hi to the farm animals and the staff. Then we’d check in at Loring Park, where my daughter Hannah lives. She’s like our tour guide and has taken us to nearby restaurants like 4 Bells and Pat’s Tap. In St. Paul, she has taken us to Kyatchi, which is sushi and hot dogs, which is interesting. Then we go down to Bde Maka Ska, the lake we usually walk around. If it’s a really fancy time, we’ve gone to shows at the Ordway. We did a lot of the holiday shows, like “Elf.” On our bucket list is catching a United FC soccer game at Allianz Field, and I want to go to the University of Minnesota to catch a wrestling match or a volleyball game.

Night: I have a four-wheeler, a Polaris Ranger. A summer night usually involves going out for a ride along the river, or maybe visiting neighbors. I’m so busy during the day as a zoo director, and I get to see a lot of people in the Twin Cities during the week, so it’s a goal of mine to decompress and go back to the outdoors down in Welch. I usually knock out at 9:30 or 10 p.m. As a zoo director, we get to go to a lot of fun events, so we do have our later nights. But I never make it to the end of a movie.