Oxbow Park zoo is Zollman’s legacy

BYRON — A little girl in a pink jacket ran up to the otter exhibit on Saturday afternoon at Oxbow Park’s Zollman Zoo, reached forward and tried to touch an otter swimming past. She seemed to want to touch something wild and beautiful.

The legacy of Dr. Paul Zollman lives on.

Four hours earlier, the man responsible for that otter being there — Dr. Paul Zollman, 86 — was remembered at his funeral.

While separated by about 80 years, the beloved veterinarian and children like that young girl will forever be joined because of something Zollman did about 40 years ago. Back then, John Gilbertson had some animals he kept to show at fairs, but the state Department of Natural Resources game warden wanted to get rid of them. Rather than have them euthanized, Zollman, head of Mayo Clinic’s Institute Hills Farm, where scientists performed research experiments on animals, suggested putting them at Oxbow Park.

The zoo began with just a few animals, but others picked up on the idea and the zoo grew.


Zollman had two goals for that zoo: Keep it free, and let people see and appreciate wildlife that lives or once lived in this region, such as bison, bear and elk. With that in mind, he spent countless hours there advising on animals and vaccinating or caring for them.

He was more than a veterinarian. He was the patriarch of the zoo that now is a draw for people from scores of miles away.

He attended any big event, such as the Friends of Oxbow Spring Festival or its Halloween party. He was the head greeter at the festival and also a sort of barker for the plant sale, encouraging people to buy hostas, day lilies and black-eyed Susans. In fall, Zollman was the one who brought apples that children could bob for or grab with their mouths off a table top. He missed the Oct. 25 Halloween party because he was in the hospital, but his daughter, Paula Zollman, and her husband, Dana Puffer, were there in his stead.

Paul Zollman deeply wanted others to see what he saw in nature — its beauty and the need to understand and protect it. A lot of that man still lives in the zoo.

Soon after the little girl in the pink jacket ran off to see the bear, a mother brought her children out of the nature center and into the zoo.

"Let’s go see the sea lions," she said.

The work at the zoo Zollman founded is not done.

Staff writer John Weiss travels the region’s back roads looking for people, places and things of interest for this column. If you have ideas, call him at (507) 285-7749 or e-mail him at weiss@


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