New at the Zoo: Can a new plan spell new life for Duluth’s zoo?

November 24, 2015


Rachel Scott
Zenith News

The Lake Superior Zoological Society and Duluth Parks and Recreation have approved the most recent plan to revitalize the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth’s western Fairmount Neighborhood, according to Mayor-Elect Emily Larson.

“It’s now official,” says Larson, who supports the plan, referred to as the “consensus concept” and developed by City staff and Board Members of the Zoological Society, a non-profit that manages the City-owned zoo. This is the second recent plan after the first committee could not come to agreement.
“It’s a good idea,” says Larson. “A condensed footprint does give focus. This is a framework.”

Unveiled on November 4, the current plan reduces the zoo by eight acres, opening up a “signature park” in western Duluth and connecting the Western Waterfront Trail to the St. Louis River by adding a bike and pedestrian trail under the Grand Avenue Bridge.

The plan is estimated to cost $15 million, partly by cutting back the zoo. A 2008 plan to bring all zoo exhibits and facilities up to date was estimated at $40 million. The City has committed $2.7 million to the current plan and is seeking $1.4 million in federal disaster relief funds, as well as $1.9 million in state bonding money, which Minnesota Senator Roger Reinert has already requested.

Once the City has opened the plan up to public comment (expected in late January), and put the plan before the City Council for approval (late February), the City and Zoological Society can begin seeking the remaining $9 million in funding. The tentative plan is to have the renovation completed by 2022.

Reinert, who represents Duluth’s District 7, is an ardent zoo supporter and expressed frustration that he was not apprised of the new plan, which he says took so long that the City missed out on two Legacy grants that were in the bag, but the deadlines expired.

“I had specifically asked them to keep me informed...It’s been a painful process, and definitely damaged relationships and trust. There’s been this history of on-again-off-again process.”
But Reinert does approve of the current plan. “This plan is finally one that I can be supportive of. Number one, it keeps the zoo a zoo.”

One previous plan called for scaling back the zoo to just regional species. The current plan retains the lions and tigers and bears, but includes an all-native species exhibit called the “Forest Discovery Zone.”

“That’s news to me,” says Dawn Mackety, CEO of the Lake Superior Zoological Society. Two red wolves have been slated to go in the Forest Discovery Zone exhibit. “They are obviously not native.


"All it is right now is a square on a map. We will be working with a zoo architect to help us determine how much space is needed and what we can afford...The intention [of the Forest Discovery Zone] is maybe it will have animals native to this area. There are a lot of questions we can’t answer right now.”

One of those questions is how the remaining $9 million will be raised. “That’s challenging,” says Reinert. “The state has long been a partner in the zoo and that certainly makes it more affordable...This is a reason to reinstate the motel/hotel food and beverage tax...That was what we promised,” when Mayor Don Ness rolled out the “River Corridor Vision” to invest $50 million of tourism tax and state money into attractions along the St. Louis River, including the zoo.

“But the good news,” Reinert says, “is that I’ve talked recently to the folks in St. Paul, the governor’s staff, and I told them, ‘We’re there!’ and their response was, ‘Great!’”

The plan is, in part, intended to rescue the zoo, which has suffered nearly 10 years of unrelenting missteps and misfortunes. In 2006, the zoo lost its accreditation with the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which issued a scathing report.

The water filtration system for the polar bears was failing. The tiger observation deck had deteriorated. Reliant on a single handyman, most of the structures needed maintenance and repair. The director had left in the months before the accreditation review, and there was no veterinarian or animal curator on-staff. The accreditors said they only stopped noting concerns because they ran out of time.

The following year, the zoo lost its new director after only seven months. A 19-year-old polar bear died unexpectedly of liver failure (they live about 30 years), and an elderly lion had to be euthanized (he was 19; they usually only live 10 to 14 years).

The zoo regained accreditation in 2011, only to be hit by the devastating flood of June 20, 2012, when up to 10 inches of rain fell in 18 hours. Eleven zoo animals drowned, most of them in the petting zoo.

The remaining polar bear and two harbor seals were washed right out of their exhibits. With a cost of $13 million to replace Polar Shores, the surviving polar bear was sent to another facility and there remain no plans to reopen the exhibit.

On a practical level, the 2012 flood closed the zoo for 24 straight days in the middle of its busiest season, dropping visitorship and revenue to record lows.

However, there have been moments of joy amidst the bleak. The zoo acquired three lion cubs (from a somewhat shady dealer, but the cubs were cute). One of the monkeys had an unexpected baby, and grant money paid for a new tiger observation deck.

The Lake Superior Zoo has an annual operating budget of $2 million and receives an annual City subsidy of $675,000. It houses about 400 animals, representing 120 species, 20 of which are threatened or endangered in the wild.

The zoo participates in the “Species Survival” program, which breeds endangered species, requiring extensive information about the genetic diversity of the animals. Through the program, the zoo bred two colobus monkeys in 2013, and, last year, two sets of two baby lemurs.

This month, the zoo’s Amur tiger, Ussuri, will be exchanged for another tiger and bred at a Nebraska zoo. There are 133 Amur, or Siberian, tigers in accredited zoos. Less than 400 are believed to still exist in the wild, mostly in Russia.

The zoo started in 1923, when Bert Onsgard, a West Duluth businessman, petitioned to build a pen at Fairmount Park for Billy, his pet deer. Onsgard dreamt of building a Duluth zoo, and the idea quickly caught on. People donated animals, and schoolchildren raised enough money to buy two bear cubs. Pittsburgh Steel gave them a railcar’s worth of fencing.

During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal project that put Americans back to work by publicly investing in infrastructure and arts, built the zoo’s pavilion and the bridges over Kingsbury Creek, as well as several animal enclosures, all constructed from native bluestone rock.

In 1962, a mongoose was smuggled into Duluth on a merchant ship from Madras, India. The mongoose had not proven itself a stellar passenger. As pets, they are not advisable since they tend to wreck the place, and this one wreaked havoc on the ship. Rather than force it to walk the plank, the crew put up with it all the way to Duluth, where they donated it to the now-thriving Lake Superior Zoo, which accepted the mongoose and named it Mr. Magoo.

Unfortunately, it was strictly illegal at that time to have a mongoose in the United States—not even in a zoo—and the U.S. government ordered that Mr. Magoo be euthanized. The public outcry went national until President Kennedy granted Mr. Magoo a presidential pardon, after which Mr. Magoo lived at the Lake Superior Zoo until his death in 1968.

During those early years, the zoo was a great success, drawing as many as 200,000 visitors a year—an astonishing number, considering Duluth’s population peaked at 101,000 in 1930.

The zoo continued to prosper during the 1990’s, with as many as 140,000 visitors. Then the recession of the ’00s hit the zoo hard. A lack of money led to a lack of new exhibits, creating a negative feedback loop of fewer visitors and even less money.
Then came the one-two punch of losing accreditation and the tremendous losses from the flood. Even shuttering the zoo and turning the whole place over to Fairmount Park has been on the table.

“I feel a great sense of urgency,” says Jim Filby Williams, Director of the City’s Department of Public Administration. “Zoo exhibits are astonishingly difficult to do well. It’s common to pour $10 to $20 million into single exhibits.

“We have far, far less money than most communities with zoos. We have to be very focused and disciplined. We have to look for low-capital/high-return concepts”—all the while retaining the standards of accreditation and doing right by the animals, which is a quality that attracted Dawn Mackety to the Lake Superior Zoo two years ago.

“I was also excited by its location. It is unique to have a zoo open this far north, year-round. The grounds are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. It has a lot of community support, and I couldn’t ask for a better staff.”

However, the zoo—and its current plan—are not without critics. “We need to do something different,” says First District City Councilor Jennifer Julsrud. “I’ve heard from many of my constituents that a lot of the animals are sad or depressed-looking.

“I would like to see a shift away from the large and exotic animals. I do believe people would like to see some park space there. Why fence it off when there are such beautiful spaces to visit?”

(Julsrud later asked to have her comments kept off-the-record, but, when pressed, agreed to leave them on-the-record. As a rule, Zenith policy does not allow elected officials to speak off-the-record.)

Rick Schwartz sees the role of zoos differently. Known as “Zookeeper Rick,” Schwartz is ambassador for the San Diego Zoo, the largest zoo in the U.S., whose Vision Statements reads (in its entirety): “We will lead the fight against extinction.”

“Unfortunately, we’re losing a lot of the wild places,” says Schwartz “For many species, without zoos in place, they would not be with us. Zoos are a safety net, where animals are safe from poaching and habitat loss. One example is the northern white rhino. Now there are only four left on the planet.”

The San Diego Zoo has preserved genetic material from prior generations of rhinos, so they can attempt to bring the species back without inbreeding. “The idea that zoos aren’t needed is inaccurate and outdated. Rather than shut a zoo down, I’d like for people to see what they can do to make it a better place.”

In addition, it may be hard for visitors to judge whether an animal is sad or depressed. Unlike circuses or marine mammal parks, zoos don’t train their animals to do tricks for the public’s amusement. When you visit, some animals may be resting, or shy, or just not in the mood to interact with you. That’s all part of the zoo experience—an experience Reinert wants to preserve for this generation and the next, so that kids learn to care about conservation.

“[Ours] is the only zoo in the northern two-thirds of the state. It’s a place to expose kids to animals with which they are not familiar. Many children have pets at home, and here’s an opportunity to grow that experience and expose kids to animals with which they are not familiar. At the zoo, they can see an animal, and touch it and feel it, and it brings all of the connections together.”

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