After 3,500 hours and 22 years, Como Zoo greeter ready to retire

She turns 94 next week and has logged more than 3,500 hours volunteering at the Como Zoo, but for Gretchen Estes, it has always been a labor of love.

"My birthday was a complete surprise, I'm a princess!" Estes told Fox 9 while co-workers celebrated her birthday Tuesday.

For 22 years, she has been a fixture at the St. Paul attraction. She started volunteering at The Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden, moving then to the gift shop, before landing at her current role as the Zoo's greeter.

"You see them coming and you see them going, two different views, and everybody usually says hello at least. You say thank you, some of them say you're welcome, some of them haven't learned that yet," she said.

This illustrious career will come to an end in September, which is an event Estes looks to with a heavy heart.

"I'm going to hate to leave! Aww I don't want to cry. My mascara will streak if I cry," she laughed.

Estes fell in love with the zoo shortly after her husband passed away, when she found the Japanese Garden to be a very comforting and peaceful place. Since then, she has spent time at the park almost every afternoon.

"What nicer place could you be for 3 hours of an afternoon? And you see a lot of people, talk to a lot of people, and talking I'm good at!"

In the end, she considers herself lucky for the time she has spent at the Como Zoo and the personal connections she has made.

"I think it's a nice thing to do. It's a gift," she said.