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Como Zoo hopes to spark support for new sea lion exhibit

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St. Paul's Como Zoo has big plans for a new pool and amphitheater that would provide Sparky the sea lion with a year-round showcase.

WCCO reports the plans for a new exhibit for the zoo's seals and sea lions stem partly from new federal requirements governing the care of marine mammals.

Zoo officials unveiled their plans for a $14.8 million overhaul of the area that's home to the namesake star of "The Sparky Show," the Pioneer Press reports. The renovation would allow both outdoor and indoor performances of the show, which started in 1956 and is the zoo's most popular attraction.

Minnesota Public Radio reports the new enclosure would take about three years to design and build and would allow the half-dozen seals and sea lions to live in their native salt water rather than the freshwater they now have.

The zoo will ask the Legislature to provide all but $1 million of the cost. But competition for state dollars during the upcoming legislative session will be tough. Gov. Mark Dayton left the zoo's request off the list of recommended state construction projects he sent to lawmakers this month.

In recent years the state has helped fund new rainforest and gorilla exhibits at the zoo. Several other St. Paul projects are also in line for funding in this year's bonding bill.

But given the changing requirements for keeping marine mammals, the new sea lion home could be necessary to keep the Sparky show going. In the announcement of the zoo's proposal, Como Campus Manager Michelle Furrer says: “We want to ensure that, for generations to come, Sparky will be an ambassador for conservation and education. In order to do this updates are needed.”

The zoo collects donations at the gate but charges visitors no admission fee. The Pioneer Press says with nearly 2 million visitors per year, Como Zoo is Minnesota's most popular public attraction.

A video produced by St. Paul's Office of Communications a few years ago tracks a day in the life of Sparky. The current one, by the way, is Sparky number six.

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