Why we want(ed) you to help the Minnesota Zoo

Disclaimer: This article was published on Patreon on May 20th, 5 days before the murder of George Floyd, during a time period where we were blogging about the COVID-19 pandemic specifically. Things have changed a lot in those 5 days, and this article is frankly no longer relevant.

We’re removing the paywall on this article so as to not charge people for a story that is so far removed from the environment that we are currently living in, but we are not publishing it on our social media because we don’t want to distract from the real issues at hand. Instead of the outdated advice in this article, please consider donating to one of the collectives listed on the Minnesota Freedom Fund website, or your local bail fund.

We love the Minnesota Zoo. Every time we’ve gone there, it’s been a fantastic experience. For the money, it’s one of the best ways to pack an entire day full of entertainment, exercise, and education you can get. It’s just too bad that there’s a global pandemic on and all, forcing the shutdown of non-essential businesses like this one. 

The zoo is actually especially in trouble due to the coronavirus situation, having just laid off 48 employees and reducing their total workers by 125 people. Naturally it’s hard to run a zoo in a situation that requires severe social distancing  – the zookeepers are good at keeping the animals away from you, not from keeping the people away from each other.

So we’d like to take you on a small virtual journey, a tribute of sorts, to the Minnesota Zoo. We want to talk about the good times the zoo has given us, in a transparent attempt to pull at your heart strings and maybe donate a little money to the Minnesota Zoo Foundation. So please, click through the jump to learn about the good times we’ve had at the zoo.

The Minnesota Zoo is one of our favorite places to be. Will has been there numerous times in his life, but Paula didn’t grow up in Minnesota, so they only got to go there once they had moved in. They had been to other, smaller zoos before, so the Minnesota Zoo was the first time going to a “big” zoo for them.

Our primary reason to go to the zoo together for the first time was, honestly, to go to the petting zoo. For some reason we really, really wanted to go to a petting zoo, and the Minnesota Zoo had the one closest to us. We had no idea what to expect going there – well, maybe Will did – but it was a guaranteed Whole Day of Fun. What was there to lose?

We didn’t know it at the time, but we were extremely lucky on the day that we went. This was in 2012, and the zoo was on the verge of making some big changes: for one, they were going to get rid of the iconic monorail, and for two, they were ending their dolphin exhibit as the dolphins were getting too old for shows. We managed to experience both of these things on the same day!

Our monorail experience was, in short, a mistake. Like many people, we thought it would stop somewhere where you could get off. We had hoped that it would stop at the petting zoo, giving us a quick way to get straight to the pettin’ – imagine our surprise when it only looped around the entirety of the zoo, giving us nothing but a tour of the zoo’s primary exhibits! We felt back then that it was a complete waste of our time, but its presence is oddly missed.

Disembarking, it was now clear to us that our zoo day had to be a full Zoo Day whether we liked it or not. Ergo, we decided to dip into the Discovery Bay aquarium, as that was the first exhibit on the route to the petting zoo. And again, we got extremely lucky: there was going to be a dolphin show in only a little bit! Naturally we had to see it, and then we learned something: this was one of the very last shows the dolphins were doing before they were officially retired.

The dolphin show was a magical experience. They are grace personified. So slick, so fast, so powerful. We were up in the wheelchair accessible seats, far out of the splash zone, but it was incredible to see how much water those animals could move. It was for the best, though – using dolphins for public acrobatics shows is a dodgy proposition at the best, and these particular dolphins were getting up there in the years.

Discovery Bay is one of the best parts of the zoo, even aside from the dolphins. Its largest tank is a gorgeous, otherworldly look into the deeps, with recessed windows that you can crawl inside to get a good look as if you were submerged yourself. Enormous sharks, stingrays, and many other Atlantic sealife swim by in elegant schools. And if that isn’t enough for you, why not check out the touch tank with the starfish? Our only qualm with the aquarium is that it’s a bit tight to get around in with a wheelchair.

Speaking of accessibility, the Minnesota Zoo is otherwise wonderfully wheelchair accessible! There are virtually no spaces where a wheelchair user cannot go. There were a few steep ramps that would have been hard for a person pushing their own wheelchair, but there were signs posted notifying that staff would be willing to assist anybody who needs help. With that in mind, the trails around the zoo can get pretty steep, so expect a good workout if you’re on foot or in a chair. The worst offender of them all was and has always been the door into the aquarium, which has an insurmountable bump that remains mysteriously unfixed to this day, but the aquarium is accessible through the main doors anyway so it’s just a quick trip around.

The layout of the Minnesota Zoo is a long loop, starting and ending at the same area. By the Northern trail, some of the first animals you see are more regional fare, like moose and caribou, intermixed with the more international tigers. By the time you reach the dhole, you’ve got a crossroads to go down: choose wisely, because one way leads to the petting zoo farm, and the other leads to a dead end where there is only musk ox. 

Once you’ve actually made it to the farm, congratulations! This is where we wanted to be in the first place! Be warned: The path to the farm is long and steep, and can make for difficult traveling if you’re in a wheelchair. But the struggle is worth it: there are horses on the way up, and you can look at them. They’re regular horses, but sometimes they run around, and that’s awesome.

The star attraction of the petting zoo – really, the only animal you can actually pet – are the goats. The petting zoo is actually a fully functioning farm, with cows, sheep, and goats that you can even watch being milked. The petting zoo is our favorite place in the zoo, we’re not going to lie. We love the goats. They’re bossy, detached, and completely cute. The goats were very interested in Will when we entered the goat pen, and for good reason…The goats had all crowded around him, letting him pet them, licking his hands, and chewing on the wheels of his chair! No damage done, fortunately, but it was probably the most interesting sight those goats had seen in weeks. Will was honored to let the goats get a taste of wheelchair rubber.

Sadly, the next time we went to the zoo, the goats weren’t so interested in the wheelchair. But they were still as friendly as goats could be, as long as you had a handful of goat treats for them to eat. The zoo had changed a lot in that time; the dolphins were gone, and replaced with beautiful Hawaiian monk seals. Though we did not see a performance by these seals, they were gorgeous swimming through their aquarium tank like long, fat torpedoes.

After a long and fortunately downhill walk away from the zoo, you’ll head around to another new feature, and one of our other favorite parts of the zoo: The Llama Trek. This is a little side-loop you can enter and walk around in to see, what else? Llamas! The trek is a seasonal thing through the summer, and when we first saw it in 2019 the end date had well passed – we were very, very lucky they were still doing it for some reason. The llamas are majestic, beautiful creatures. All the best attributes of goats in an adorably lanky body. 

The llamas alone aren’t the only thing that makes that area great – they share the zone with the camels and wild horses, fellow ungulates of wildly disparate climates. The wild horses are even better than the domesticated ones by the farm. They really are wild, rowdy, and enjoy running around and rolling in the grass in a way that the farm horses don’t.

The llama exhibit also shares space with another friend from the Andes: Guinea pigs! They’re… just guinea pigs. We couldn’t pet them, and guinea pigs aren’t really the most interesting animal to watch, but they’re cute. There are also rheas, which are big flightless birds, that are very awesome but mostly stand around. The llamas were definitely the highlight. Just don’t touch them, and stay on the path, because we think the implication was that they could get kind of aggressive if they were confronted.

After the llamas is the best place to take a break from all the walking and sit down in front of the prairie dog exhibit. Reader, we once saw something here that boggles the mind, even if it was a complete twist of our own imaginations: we saw, at first glance, a parent throwing their child into the exhibit. This did not happen, obviously – presumably the parent was simply lifting the child to see the dogs better – but it looked for the life of us like they were about to huck that child over the wall to live with the prarie dogs forever. 

We pressed on, past the bison, kings of the prairie, and the takin, into a special sub-exhibit: Russia’s Grizzly Coast. These are a series of caverns – not real ones, just plastic models – that go under the ground to give you an up-close look at some of the aquatic mammals of the Russian east. This is the end of the formal trail around the park, and one hell of a cap-off point. This is where you can see the incredible tiger and leopard, the massive brown bears, and the utterly adorable sea otters. The caves are narrow and winding, orchestrated with the piped-in sounds of Pacific surf. It’s surprisingly atmospheric, lit in the gloomy aquamarines of the animals’ tank walls, listening to the ocean waves.

And with that, you’re back at the start. But the zoo isn’t over yet! There’s still the indoor exhibits to experience! Opposite of the entrance, pass by the snow monkey exhibit – and I promise that we will get to the snow monkeys – to enter the enclosure for the Tropics Trail. Here are some of the most interesting animals in the entire zoo, packed together into a make-believe tropical jungle. Plenty of wonderful birds fly free as you take in the tapirs, gibbons, and tamarins. It’s here we saw what might be the cutest thing ever: a mother sloth holding her baby tightly as they both slept. Like, seriously, it was so adorable we can’t even describe.

On the opposite side of the same building is the Minnesota Trail, an exhibit for more local fare. This might not sound interesting, but it’s a completely different experience to see the animals that are all around us right in your face. Here we could see a live bald eagle, something that managed to surprise us when we came to its exhibit. The bald eagle is hyped up so much as a symbol of “America” that seeing a live one so close feels a little surreal. There’s also an exhibit for raccoons designed to resemble a back porch, complete with overturned trash cans and a rocking chair. But the stars of the show are the gray wolves, complete with a little interactive area for hearing real wolf howls and touching simulated wolf fur. Kids must love it.

Finally, it’s back to the start with the snow monkeys, and boy, these guys are fun to watch. The troop of monkeys are charming in a large, open-air exhibit with a huge dead tree for them to climb around on. They fight, they play, they climb around, it’s endless entertainment. 

The last stop before we left was the penguin exhibit, something we didn’t even know existed when we entered. This was a fine treat to round off the day with. Penguins are, naturally, very chill creatures – literally!!! Oh, what a day it had been, hadn’t it? A lot of walking, a lot of animals, and a lot of fun. The zoo is an experience that can’t be beat.

Of course, nothing can be perfect, and that goes for a zoo. The food is consistently overpriced for mediocre fare: warmed-up chicken strips, Superpretzels, bagged kettle corn and cotton candy. We understand that all life is a hustle, and you must earn where you can earn, but really you’re better off packing a few sandwiches and donating your savings directly to the zoo.

We hope you enjoyed this little walk around the zoo with us. If you’ve never been to the Minnesota Zoo, perhaps it intrigued you enough to give it a visit when it re-opens; if you’re a frequent visitor, we hope it reminded you of some of your favorite times at the zoo. 

And if you’re in either camp, we’d like to remind you again that the Minnesota Zoo is in dire straits, and could really use a little help from the outside world. Perhaps, if you’d be so kind, you could throw a few dollars their way on their official website? The animals would be grateful, we’re sure. While you’re there, you can look at their Virtual Farm Babies section, which just recently ended but is still very adorable.

Feel free to leave your own zoo experiences in the comments below, including any of your local places that might need support!

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