The History of the Lake Superior Zoo

Historty page
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 W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration) 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 1930 when the elephant house opened. 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 1976 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 Flood

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On June 20, 2012 torrential rains and flash flooding severely damaged the zoo and the Northland community when 9 inches of rain fell in West Duluth. Rain water from areas above the zoo ran into Kingsbury Creek, which runs through the zoo to the St. Louis River. During this unprecedented rain event, the creek overflowed its banks and flooded portions of the zoo property. The most affected areas were the barnyard and Polar Shores. Fourteen animals lost their lives including six sheep, four goats, a donkey, a turkey vulture, a raven and a snowy owl. The waters were high enough that the two harbor seals and polar bear were able to exit their exhibits. The harbor seals were found outside of the zoo property, probably by the flood waters pushing them through a culvert; the polar bear remained on zoo property near her exhibit and was tranquilized and moved to safety. Animal care staff were able to rescue the silver foxes and North American river otters during the flood.

All the other zoo animals were safe and remained in good care during flood clean-up. Due to extensive damage to the Polar Shores facility, the harbor seals and polar bear were transported to Como Park Zoo & Conservatory in St. Paul and the North American river otters were temporarily housed at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth. The zoo was able to re-open on July 13, 2012 thanks to the great clean-up progress made by volunteers and staff. However, the zoo experienced substantial facility damage, decreased visitation, and lost revenue after the flood.

Recent Progress
In November 2013, Sam Maida retired as CEO and Dr. Dawn Mackety was hired. The zoo’s WPA-era bluestone open-air pavilion was renovated into a year-round indoor classroom and special event venue (2013). In May 2014, the city stopped all master plan and capital project work to begin a new master planning process that was completed in early 2016. During that time, the city gave approval for the zoo to move forward with a few society-funded projects, including construction of a new silver fox exhibit (2014), construction of new enclosures for ambassador raptors (2015), renovation of the two-story primate exhibit in the Main Building (2015), and adding Bennett’s wallabies, sugar gliders, and critically endangered turtles to the renamed Australia and Oceania building (2015). The society also received a number of grants and donations that allowed the zoo to purchase a new Zoomobile van, snow removal tractor and mower, create new interactive signs, and expand educational programming.