The zoo dates back to 1923 when a West Duluth businessman, Bert Onsgard, received permission from the city to construct a pen for Billy, his pet deer. Bert shared this vision for a zoo in West Duluth, and his idea was contagious! The community embraced the notion and rallied to support the blossoming project. The Pittsburgh Steel Company donated a railroad car of fencing, local citizens donated exotic animals, and school children raised money to purchase a pair of lion cubs. The Duluth Zoo weathered through the depression years and the WPA Program built bridges over Kingsbury Creek and many animal enclosures (including the elephant house) that are still serving the zoo today.
During the 1930's and 40's, the zoo continued to grow and is said to have attracted 200,000 visitors in one year during the early days. Buildings were constructed, and the animal collection grew to include some unusual and popular personalities for Northern Minnesota:
- Bessie, the elephant, was an all time favorite animal. She came to the zoo in 1937 when the elephant house opened. She was 12 years old at the time. The local community knew her well. Before perimeter fencing was installed around the zoo, Bessie would often wander off the zoo grounds and go "visiting." One recounting of an event tells of a neighbor who had to call a zookeeper one evening because Bessie was standing on his front porch. In his haste, the zookeeper ran out the door in his pajamas to retrieve Bessie. When he got there, he simply took her trunk, pulled it over his shoulder, and walked her back to the zoo! Bessie lived at the zoo until she passed away in 1974 at the age of 49.
- Valerie, a Himalayan black bear and celebrity mascot for a WWII bomber unit, had accompanied flight crews on several bombing runs during the war. She was donated to the zoo in 1946.
- Mr. Magoo may be the most famous zoo resident of all time, having received an official Presidential pardon from President John F. Kennedy in November, 1962. Mr. Magoo was an Indian mongoose who was smuggled into the Duluth port by a merchant seaman earlier that year. The mongoose had been a pet on a ship that sailed from Madras, India to the United States through the Great Lakes to the port of Duluth. It was a long journey, and by the time the ship arrived in Duluth, the mongoose had created much havoc on the ship. The seaman decided that he needed to find a new home for Mr. Magoo, so he donated him to the Duluth Zoo. Unfortunately, because it was not legal to have a mongoose in the United States, the U.S. government ordered that Mr. Magoo be euthanized. The local public outcry about the pending fate of Mr. Magoo sped across the country to the highest levels of our government. President John F. Kennedy granted the Presidential pardon that spared his life. This national celebrity lived at our zoo until his death in 1968.
Since 1923, our zoo has provided visitors with the tremendous opportunity to see animals from around the world. In the 1954 zoo visitor booklet, Mayor George D. Johnson states, "The Zoo has a definite cultural and educational significance, particularly for us city dwellers. The days have long since past where the average citizen could look out the window and see a buffalo and, of course, most of us are not blessed with the opportunity of traveling to foreign lands to observe wild life in its natural surroundings." Zoo visitors of the day could see many large North American animals like buffalo, both black and grizzly bears, cougars, moose, as well as many exotics such as African lions, jaguars, panthers, hippopotamus, hyenas, chimpanzees, giant tortoises, and polar bears. In fact, at one point in the zoo's history, our zoo served as a polar bear breeding facility. Many of us remember the zoo during the 1960's and 70's, especially Thornton's Kiddieland and the famous steam-powered train that ran in Fairmont Park right next to the zoo. Our memories of the old zoo during this era bring to mind images of animals in old barred cages and cramped paddocks. However, this was about to change.
In the 1980's a new cultural movement spread across our country, and the world, that brought about a change in animal management practices and the philosophy for the role that zoos play in the community. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) played a big part in this change. This new philosophy endorsed naturalistic habitats for zoo animals and enrichments to stimulate behaviors and activities. These changes not only improved the lives of the animals, they also expanded the educational message beyond wildlife conservation to encompass discussions about environmental preservation and how humans impact the Earth.
The Duluth Zoo joined this movement, and in 1985, first earned its accreditation from the AZA. This prestigious accomplishment put our zoo in an elite group of one of the top 10% of zoos in the country. To achieve AZA accreditation, a zoo must pass a rigorous application and inspection process. It must meet or exceed the AZA's standards for animal health and welfare, education, and conservation efforts. It is a meticulous process that involves facility inspection and operational review by an expert panel. To maintain AZA accreditation, this inspection process is repeated every five years.
To reflect its regional significance, the Duluth Zoo's name was changed to the Lake Superior Zoo. By 1987, a Master Plan for a contemporary Lake Superior Zoo, based around animals that thrive in Northern climates, was completed. The community, state legislature, and City of Duluth invested $7 million dollars to renew our zoo.
- Naturalistic habitats for of the lions, bears, and cougars were completed in 1988.
- A new Australian building was completed in 1989.
- Transformation of the Elephant House into a new Polar Shores exhibit was completed in 1990 to provide habitats for harbor seals, river otters, snowy owls, arctic fox, and the famous polar bears, Bubba and Berlin.
- The overhaul of the zoo's main building in 1992 involved removal of the old cramped cages that were once used for big cats and primates. This made way for a modern two-story primate exhibit, educational facilities, a gift shop, café, offices, and a large deck that allows visitors to view the entire Amur Tiger exhibit and the scenic zoo park.
- A snow leopard exhibit was completed in 1993.
- The Primate Conservation Center was completed in 1998 to house endangered primates that are part of the AZA's Species Survival Plan (SSP).
- A new, state-of-the-art Willard Munger Animal Care Center was opened in 2001 to provide the best veterinary care for the zoo animals.
In the 1980's and 90's the zoo was in its "hay-days." Community involvement and support from the private and public sectors was at its peak. Zoo attendance hit 140,000 people in 1998.
In the fall of 2006, the zoo lost its accreditation status with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Faced with many challenges, the City of Duluth turned over the operation of the zoo to the Lake Superior Zoological Society, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, on March 1, 2009. The Zoological Society made significant progress in addressing deficiencies cited by the AZA and received AZA accreditation in September 2011.
During this transition, community support of the zoo was outstanding. Groups such as Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions' Club, Optimist Club, scout troops, nonprofit and educational institutions, church groups, plus students, staff and faculty from Lake Superior College and Duluth schools adopted projects to benefit the zoo. Local foundations supported the transition of the zoo to non-profit management with substantial grant funding. The zoo received contributions from many generous donors who wanted to help save the zoo. Because of this, the Zoological Society's Board of Directors decided to operate the entire zoo under its non-profit status.
As a non-profit, the Zoological Society has the ability to generate funds, accept contributions, and leverage resources to repair and rebuild the zoo facility. The community is invited to help shape a renewed vision for our zoo.
Why are Zoos Important?
There are many reasons why zoos are important to a community. First, zoos connect people with nature. The Lake Superior Zoo is the only zoo in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin and is the only major zoo outside of the Twin Cities, Madison, and Milwaukee metro areas. According to Lake Superior Zoo attendance records, our zoo in its present condition attracts: 100,000 visitors each year, and half of the visitors are children under the age of 12; 20,000 group visitors from area schools, preschools, day care centers, adult group homes, and youth organizations; 16,000 students and children participating in programs at the zoo and in Zoomobile outreach programs; and 2,400 active zoo member households that represent nearly 10,000 area residents who are core supporters of the zoo. According to AZA research, 175 million people visit AZA accredited zoos and aquariums each year. This outnumbers the annual attendance of all NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA games combined!
Second, zoos are a valuable educational asset with an important environmental message. There is an important shift in emphasis happening today; zoos are evolving from recreational facilities to conservation organizations. The 2007 AZA visitor impact study shows that visiting accredited zoos and aquariums will:
- Enhance public understanding of wildlife and the conservation of the places animals live.
- Prompt individuals to reconsider their role in environmental problems and conservation action and see themselves as part of the solution.
- Create a stronger connection to nature.
- Encourage attitude and behavioral changes that help conservation.
The Lake Superior Zoo's education programs serve thousands of students annually, from toddlers to adults, teaching a blended curriculum of biology, ecology, and wildlife conservation. In 2012 the Zoomobile brought zoo outreach programs to 8,000 people in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin. At the zoo, daily animal enrichments and trainings (called "Oh Fur Fun" sessions) provide excitement and stimulation for both the zoo animals and zoo visitors.
Third, children and families today have less contact with the natural world, due in part to the explosion of technology over the past 25 years. Cable TV, video games, and computers and the internet substitute virtual entertainment for hands-on experiences. In his book Nature Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv tells us that baby boomers are probably the last generation to have had the opportunity to freely explore nature, and that children born after 1980 seldom hear the words, "Go outside and play." Children and families show symptoms of stress from their lack of contact with nature such as: obesity, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, lack of creativity and curiosity, ignorance and loss of respect for nature and for community. Zoos provide a healthy alternative to virtual entertainment, including the opportunity for hands-on exploration and quality parent/child interaction that builds strong family relationships.
With grant funding in 2006, the Zoological Society instituted the Community Outreach Program that provides free zoo passes to families receiving assistance from area social service agencies. Caralee Isabell, from the Teen Parent Center at Life House in Duluth writes:
"... Last summer I was able to take young mothers and their young children to the zoo as a part of this program. This was a great opportunity for me to spend quality one-on-one time with these high risk and homeless mothers, providing time to build relationships and to give parenting support and feedback. One mother that I took was a 17-year-old mother of an 18-month-old daughter, and neither had ever been to the zoo before. We spent over 2 hours exploring, talking, laughing, and learning. During this short period of time we were able to build trust and talk more deeply about life and parenting..."