Minnesota Zoo director improves conservation and community

Frawley reviews past year and looks ahead to future

John Frawley

The Minnesota Zoo is one of the largest zoos in the country. It stretches across 485 acres and serves 1.3 million guests each year. It is renowned for its local and global conservation efforts, its environmental education programs and its care for endangered species.

Although nostalgia is strong at this nearly 40-year-old zoo, change is welcome. Last year, new leadership led to a fresh vision for the next 40 years of the zoo.

On Feb. 16, 2016, John Frawley officially began his position as director of the Minnesota Zoo. Frawley was a zookeeper at the Minnesota Zoo from 1988 to 1992. He also worked at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Texas. Before coming to the Minnesota Zoo last year, he was serving as the president and CEO of bay.org, a San Francisco-based not-for-profit working to “protect, restore, and inspire conservation of San Francisco Bay and its watershed from the Sierra to the sea.”

During his first year and a half, Frawley has spent a significant amount of time building relationships between Minnesotans and the zoo.

“I want to get the Minnesota Zoo into the fabric of Minnesota – into the community,” Frawley said. “I don’t want to just sit back.”

He travelled throughout the state, spreading the message that the zoo’s door is wide open for partnerships and relationships. The Minnesota Zoo has partnered with the Minnesota Twins, Explore Minnesota and other organizations. Last year, Frawley went on a “Greater Minnesota Tour,” bringing the Zoomobile with him to talk with communities around the state and share a piece of the zoo.

In addition to strengthening ties between the zoo and Minnesotans, Frawley hopes to repair and improve the zoo itself. The Minnesota Zoo has proposed a $34 million bonding project to cover the cost of renovations throughout the campus.

“Our conversation has shifted to revitalizing a world class 40-year-old zoo, and getting it ready for another 40 years,” Frawley said. “Instead of big blockbuster exhibits, we need to revitalize a 40-year-old zoo as a priority.”

Frawley said that all of the issues identified in the Heart of the Zoo II plan, such as renovating the snow monkey exhibit, are still being addressed; however, the projects have been rescoped to make room in the budget for other developments he believes are more critical.

Repairing the Tropics Trail and bolstering the nocturnal animal exhibit are just a couple of the developments proposed in the bonding project. Frawley is passionate about bringing people into nature, and his teams are exploring possibilities for programs and facilities that will help Minnesotans experience a piece of the wilderness, such as building a hiking trail, camp sites and an adventure course.

Frawley plans to convert the monorail track into the “Minnesota Treetop Walk” — an elevated walking tour of the zoo designed for people of all ages.

“Mobility is our biggest complaint. People love the zoo, but it is hard to walk out to the farm or the parking lot,” he said.

Traversing across the vast zoo campus can be difficult for some, and Frawley hopes that the renovations will make the zoo more accessible. Frawley also hopes to one day have a fleet of trolleys that would take people around the zoo.

Minnesota Zoo Director John Frawley and his granddaughter, Callie, explore the Minnesota Zoo’s Hanifl Family Wild Woods nature play area. Frawley uses zoo resources to bring Minnesotans closer to nature. Hanifl is the zoo’s initial prototype for a physical structure that promotes nature and nature play. Photo submitted

Frawley doesn’t just want to make the zoo a better experience for people, but also for the animals. The zoo currently houses more than 5,300 animals, including nearly 70 threatened and endangered species. Frawley said the zoo is working to not only care for the animals inside the zoo, but to protect animals in their natural habitats.

“Zoos have evolved into tools for conservation. Many of these animals’ habitats are critically threatened and encroached on, not just because of poaching but also because of the habitat destruction that is happening in their ecosystems — it’s left them so vulnerable,” he said. “And that is why zoos are so important. We are holding those genetics and holding those animals, and we are raising money and awareness for what is happening in their ecosystems.”

In the past year, the zoo has assisted with several local conservation efforts. Zoo staff members released endangered species of butterflies into the wild, they reintroduced bison into Minnesota state parks and they supported a new tiger cub that was born at the zoo.

“For a conservation person, these are the wins that make it worth it,” Frawley said.

In addition to his passionate conservation efforts, Frawley is known for his savvy business sense. Frawley said he tells his teams that he intends to run the zoo as a smart business.

“We are a nonprofit, so when we are successful at running the business part of the zoo that allows us to invest more deeply into our conservation programs and our animal welfare programs,” he said.

The Minnesota Zoo has a $25 million operating budget. One-third of its funding comes from the state of Minnesota. Two-thirds of the budget is made up of earned revenue – profit from gates, retail, food and other entrepreneurial endeavors – and funding from the philanthropic branch of the zoo, the Minnesota Zoo Foundation.

Although admission into the zoo is currently $18 for adults and $12 for children and seniors, families enrolled in state of Minnesota social service programs can attend for free.

“It is a free zoo for those who need it to be free,” Frawley said.

The number of people visiting the zoo who are enrolled in these programs has been growing at the rate of 63 percent a month. Frawley anticipates that over 100,000 Minnesotans will visit the Minnesota Zoo for free this year.

“Minnesotans love the environment,” he said. “I’m inspired by the people of Minnesota and how they care for and support the zoo.”

Many Minnesotans also enjoy giving freely of their time to the zoo. With 1,200 volunteers, the Minnesota Zoo has one of the best zoo volunteer programs in the nation, Frawley said. Last year, they clocked in a collective 3 million hours of volunteer service.

“That volunteer work says a lot for Minnesotans,” Frawley said. “That’s people giving their free time. They are getting up in the morning, driving here every week. And that is a big part of how the zoo runs.”

Frawley said his employees are rock stars. He also appreciates support from the board, partners and volunteers.

Looking ahead at the coming year, Frawley hopes to continue the work of the past year so Minnesotans can fully enjoy its resources and so that future generations will be able to as well.

“In my mind, zoos have never been more important than they are today,” he said.

Frawley said he intends to continue his community building, outreach, conservation and renovation efforts. He hopes to set up the 40-year-old zoo for another 50 years of serving animals and Minnesota communities alike.

Contact Amy Mihelich at [email protected]