Llamas, giant sandboxes and unique events are all part of the job at the Zoo

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MN Zoo Tropics

Working with animals, giant sandboxes and planning unforgettable events are all in a day’s work for two Local 1201 members working at the Minnesota Zoo. Judy Thompson, special events and promotions, and Peter Wright, corporate events, have seen it all. But they haven’t seen the llamas yet because they won’t be on display for another 10 days.   

Right photo: (L-R) Local 1201's Peter Wright and Judy Thompson at the Minnesota Zoo's Tropics Trail.

“What makes the Llama Trek exhibit unique is the ability for guests to walk inside the exhibit with the animals,” Thompson said.

In addition to allowing visitors to walk among the free-roaming llamas along the Northern Trail, the seasonal space will also feature other South American animals like guinea pigs and flightless birds known as rheas. The Llama Trek exhibit will open May 25 and run through Labor Day.

Earlier this year, nearly 50,000 children and their parents braved frigid February and March temperatures to participate in a tropical beach party at the zoo. The event featured two indoor sandboxes filled with 34 tons of sand. Families brought buckets and shovels and other beach toys while employees outside were removing snow with other kinds of shovels.

Zoo sandbox

The three-week tropical beach party event started more than 20 years ago. “When we initially started, it was a three-day event – and it was a lot of work for a three-day event! The response from our guests was very positive. Two years ago, we added a second sandbox in Discovery Bay,” Thompson added. 

Left photo: Children enjoying a winter getaway at the zoo's tropical beach party. (Photo courtesy of the MN Zoo)  

Thompson has been with the MN Zoo for nearly 40 years, the first half of her career was on the animal side where she started out as a zookeeper before moving over to the special events and promotions. She will be retiring this summer.  

Peter Wright works with corporate groups and others interesting in hosting meetings and special events at the zoo, often featuring the aquatic and marine wildlife of Discovery Bay or the living rain forest on the Tropics Trail. He also handles weddings with flare, literally.

“One of the most unique weddings was where the bride was a professional fire eater and she wanted to walk down the aisle with a flaming bouquet. It was like a glass terrarium and through the center of it was a chimney type piece with a flame coming out of it,” Wright said. “I was a little concerned it would get too hot, but it was quite memorable.”  

Wright joined the Minnesota Zoo in 2014 after working in similar jobs at the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul. “I’m a professional group sales events, ticketing and marketing person so there are not a lot of roles like that in government,” Wright said.

“My previous roles were not union roles. I’ve been active with MAPE since I started at the zoo, and I’m happy with my role here,” he added.