Students help at zoo butterfly exhibit

Betsy Graca

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internships can involve filing paperwork, answering phones or doing other grunt work, but at the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, some University students have a slightly different job – helping create a new butterfly exhibit.

Thousands of butterflies and plants will fill a large faux-caterpillar for the next two years, for guests to visit and walk through. The students have been assigned to help with the exhibit’s diverse plant-life and butterfly collection.

Interns have been helping set up the exhibit before its opening this Friday and then will help guests and monitor plants.

Intern Katherine Heffernan said the behind-the-scenes look at how an exhibit is set up has been exciting.

“When it’s warm out, the movement of butterflies throughout holds your attention,” the fisheries and wildlife sophomore said. “You want to follow and see where they’re going.”

Heffernan has been mulching and caring for the plants before the exhibit’s opening.

“It’s just a really beautiful set-up and a nice exhibit,” Heffernan, who wants to work at a zoo in the future, said.

Horticulture senior Angie Senn interned at the zoo for two summers before being hired as an assistant gardener.

“It’s cool to say I work at Como Zoo and Conservatory,” she said. “Not many people can say they work along lions and tigers and bears.”

Senn said the new exhibit highlights both insects and plants. Stepping into the tropical-themed exhibit is a mini-escape from Minnesota, she said.

“Just the fact that there’s actually butterflies flying around, free to land on your head, land on your face,” Senn said. “There’s always going to be a surprise around every corner. Maybe a leaf blows in the wind, and underneath is a butterfly.”

While Great Britain is noted for its butterfly exhibits, the tradition began in Japan before making its way to the United States in the 1980s.

Because the zoo’s popular polar bears are “vacationing” in Detroit waiting for their new habitat to be finished – planned to open in 2010 – the zoo wanted another exhibit to attract visitors.

Last year, 1.7 million people visited Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, and 40 percent were from out of state.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors are projected to visit the butterfly exhibit during its two-year span.

Tina Dombrowski, horticulture manager at the zoo, said an exhibit much like Como Zoo’s is what inspired her fascination with the butterflies.

She called the experience “magical” and “mesmerizing,” adding many visitors have similar feelings when coming in contact with butterflies.

“Some (people) look at them as religious experiences or spiritual experiences,” Dombrowski said.

Some people just find watching the fluttering insects relaxing, she added.

While butterflies usually have a two- to three-week life span, some will have their lives ended early by stomping feet through the exhibit.

However, Dombrowski said most of the butterflies will live out their natural cycle there.

In total, more than 5,000 butterflies of about 45 species will be displayed, with 400 to 500 filling the exhibit at any given time.

“Each experience (at the exhibit) will have a different flavor,” Michelle Furrer, marketing public relations manager for the zoo, said.

New butterflies will arrive each week from all over the world and the interns will be responsible for transporting and releasing the delivered butterflies to their new home.