September 27, 2023

DULUTH — People still talk about Bessie.

Bessie the elephant, during her years at the Lake Superior Zoo.

File / Duluth News Tribune

“That’s the first thing they remember, because it’s a core memory,” said Samantha Halligan. “An elephant in Duluth, Minnesota, that was a thing.”

It’s Halligan’s job, as director of guest experience at the Lake Superior Zoo, to know what people who walk through the doors are saying — and to help them understand what the zoo is today.

“We don’t do that anymore,” she said about keeping some of the large, exotic animals that used to be the zoo’s bread and butter, “but we do a good job of explaining why animal welfare is now top-tier in our mission, and what we provide them here at the zoo. … I think they leave just as excited as when they were here 56 years ago.”

Bessie arrived shortly after the Duluth Fairmount Zoo, as it was then known, opened. When the elephant died in 1974, the city was beginning to pivot toward today’s now-thriving tourist industry.

This year, both the

Lake Superior Railroad Museum

and the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center are turning 50. Glensheen has been open to the public for 44 years, and the Lake Superior Aquarium has been around for 23 years. The

oldest parts

of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center are 57 years old.

The 100-year-old zoo is still here, and

open every day.


Lake Superior Zoo in Fairmount Park, as seen when it was known as the Duluth Zoo.

Contributed / city of Duluth

St. Paul’s Como Zoo opened in


Apple Valley’s Minnesota Zoo (or, “the New Zoo”) in


“We’re the 19th-oldest zoo in the U.S.,” said Lake Superior Zoo CEO Haley Hedstrom. “Here I thought all along we were the oldest zoo in Minnesota, and it’s Como! It’s like, ‘Aw, you got us!'”

The two older zoos among Minnesota’s big three have this in common: They both started with deer. In St. Paul, that meant three animals fenced together in a pasture. In Duluth, that meant a fawn rescued by printer Bert Onsgard.

“The idea of a zoo started with a deer, Billy the deer,” wrote Onsgard’s granddaughter, Lynn Perry, in a

News Tribune op-ed.

“My granddad was so touched by how much joy the little animal brought to children who, every day, dropped by to play with him.”


Bert Onsgard with Billy the deer, the Duluth Fairmount Zoo’s first attraction.

Contributed / Lake Superior Zoo

The need for a zoo was clear among Duluth residents who were

acutely aware

that their would-be “Zenith City” was running behind not only St. Paul, but also Chicago and other major cities establishing zoological gardens. For decades, local leaders preferred to avoid the expense.

“Duluth doesn’t need a zoo,” Park Superintendent Henry Cleveland told the News Tribune in 1910. “We can go out in the country here … and find all the natural zoo we need and that is better than the best in any park.”

It took Onsgard and his cute little deer to finally get a zoo started, in West Duluth’s Fairmount Park. The zoo proved popular, and its infrastructure was beefed up by Depression-era federal work programs. Storied animals shepherded by Onsgard and his successors included

Mr. Magoo:

a mongoose smuggled illegally into the country but officially granted asylum by the John F. Kennedy administration.

Mr. Magoo, who died in 1968, remains on display at the zoo through the magic of artificial preservation, but “I don’t anticipate us taking in any more taxidermy,” said Hedstrom. The days of the “Fauna of the World” display, featuring big-game trophies donated by hunter Richard Griggs, are long gone.

“The bear is iconic,” said Hedstrom, acknowledging that some taxidermy remains. The philanthropist’s legacy lives on in the name of the Griggs Learning Center, now the site of many live animal exhibits.

Three light-skinned men with gray hair surround a vitrine containing a taxidermied mongoose.

In 2002, Mike Janis, from left, Sam Maida and Basil Norton surround the final resting place of Mr. Magoo, the mongoose at the Lake Superior Zoo. Janis was then zoo director and Maida was executive director of the Lake Superior Zoological Society. Norton was director of the zoo during Magoo’s last years.

Derek Neas / File / Duluth News Tribune

Instead of taxidermy, famous animals from the zoo’s past are being brought back in the form of statues that will be in place for the

Zoo La Palooza

celebration Friday. The statues are part of a historical exhibit that will open in “slow phases,” said Hedstrom. Peggy the hippo and Faru the rhinoceros will be represented, along with Bessie and others.

“In the past, we’d go into the wild and just take an animal,” said Hedstrom. “We don’t do that anymore.”

Zookeeper Jessica Phoenix tosses food to some of the pigs as other animals wait for their treats in the barnyard at the Lake Superior Zoo

Zookeeper Jessica Phoenix tosses food to some of the pigs as other animals wait for their treats in the barnyard at the Lake Superior Zoo on Jan. 18.

Jed Carlson / 2023 file / Superior Telegram

Today, the Lake Superior Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. AZA accreditation is no mere rubber stamp. As the association itself explains on its


“In addition to a very lengthy written application, AZA also requires an intense multiple-day on-site inspection and an in-person hearing in front of the Accreditation Commission.”

“I’m having dreams about AZA, still,” said Hedstrom. “It was such a big deal. The accreditation and the report, compared with 2017, the transition was a big pivotal moment for us.”

The latest five-year accreditation renewal came in


by which point Duluthians knew the badge of quality was nothing to take for granted. The zoo’s accreditation had previously lapsed in 2006, with inspectors calling the facilities’ upkeep “dismal” and accusing the city of “severely” underfunding the zoo.

Two light-skinned teenage boys lean together as they stand in front of a sign reading "Lake Superior Zoological Gardens" in an outdoor snowy setting.

John Heinrich, 15, left, and Greg Berg, 16, hang out by the Lake Superior Zoological Gardens sign in January 1988.

Dave Ballard / File / Duluth News Tribune

Tension between the city of Duluth and the zoo — now run by a nonprofit organization called the Lake Superior Zoological Society — has been intermittently evident ever since Onsgard got his go-ahead to establish the attraction in 1923. Money has often been an issue.

Duluth’s 2012 flood

devastated the zoo, causing over a dozen animal deaths and necessitating a massive cleanup, all while cutting into indispensable summer revenues. With the zoo’s ailing infrastructure blamed for exacerbating the tragedy, some argued the attraction should not, even could not, be saved.

A note tied to a black chain-link fence, along with a red flower, reads "in loving memory." Wind chimes and other items can also be seen attached to the fence.

Flowers and a set of wind chimes are tied to the Lake Superior Zoo fence facing Grand Avenue in June 2012, shared by community members in memory of the animals that died in a major flood.

Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune

“It is time for the inferior zoo of West Duluth to become extinct,” wrote one resident in a 2013 News Tribune op-ed. “I believe the grounds, buildings and park should be turned into a nature center — the Hartley or Chester Park of West Duluth, if you will.”

“The combination of flood damage and the economic struggles of zoos across the nation” had forced a crucial question, then Mayor Don Ness wrote in his own op-ed two years later. “Do we invest to maintain a traditional zoo experience or do we explore new options for the use of these spectacular park grounds?”

“I was a teenager back then, and I was amazed with the amount of community support that came out of the woodwork,” remembered Halligan, who volunteered at the zoo before she joined the staff. “The flood was super unfortunate, and it affected the entire community, but it also showed us that we are still a community asset, and that people are here to support us.”

A light-skinned woman holds her hands out to a group of children looking at bugs in displays. A long creature crawls on her hand, to the children's delight.

Sarah Wilcox, education director at the Lake Superior Zoo, shows children a giant African millipede at the Monarch Festival at First United Methodist Church in Duluth in 2019.

Ellen Schmidt / File / Duluth News Tribune

“The years following the flood were very painful for staff,” said Education Director Sarah Wilcox. “We just felt stuck for years, until things finally started rolling.”

After public debate and administrative turnover, the zoo persisted and seemed poised to rebound. By December 2019, then-CEO Erik Simonson was


the News Tribune’s editorial board that the following year would be “make or break” for the zoo.

Three months later, the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

New generation takes the keys

At the Lake Superior Zoo.

Lake Superior Zoo CEO Haley Hedstrom poses outside the zoo’s main building in 2022.

Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

“The pandemic,” said Hedstrom, “really made us take a step back and look at our operations and how we were doing things.”

The Bear Country exhibit

filled a “big hole” on the zoo grounds, and attendance surged with crowds eager to enjoy the relative safety of an outdoor attraction.

“In 2021, we paid off our line of credit with the city of Duluth, so we’re really at a good strong point right now,” said Hedstrom, who described the zoo’s current relationship with the city as “very good … a great partnership.”

Hedstrom became CEO in August 2020. “I was working at (a marketing) agency and the director of marketing position popped up in December of 2017, and I’m like, heck yeah, I want to work at a zoo!” she said. “I don’t think you can get me out of the zoo industry now.”

As she sat in the zoo’s Onsgard Room with Halligan and Wilcox, Hedstrom agreed there’s been a generational change in the organization’s leadership. When she became CEO, said Hedstrom, she was surprised to see news reports highlight her age.

“They were like, ‘the 29-year-old’ … it was so weird, but I like it,” she said. “There’s an energy. It’s a younger group of people. We have young keepers, we have young staff.” Hedstrom also noted she’s “super proud” of the fact that “we have women in leadership roles here. Our senior team is all women.”

Light-skinned young woman smiles brightly, wearing blue button-down shirt with partially obscured Lake Superior Zoo logo. Greenery is visible out of focus in background.

Samantha Halligan.

Contributed / Lake Superior Zoo

As the zoo inclines its mission toward conservation and animal welfare, it’s leaning into the advantages of Duluth’s northern climate by welcoming animals — like

Zoozee, the new red panda

— who are adapted for cold environments. “That doesn’t necessarily just mean North American northern climates,” she said. “It can mean European northern climates, or Asian northern climates.”

At the same time, the zoo is working to provide more comfortable spaces for its human visitors, who did not evolve to thrive in subzero temperatures. “As we’re trying to expand our revenue and make sure that we’re not just relying on the short summer season that we have, we want to bring indoor play to the Lake Superior Zoo,” said Hedstrom.

That’s a major focus of the zoo’s planned replacement for its century-old main building. “We have $204,000 from the state of Minnesota to

predesign a space here,”

said Hedstrom. “As I look at that predesign phase, I really want to make sure that the community has a seat at the table.”

Light-skinned girl wearing eyeglasses smiles in delight as she strokes the back of a bat clinging to her upraised left hand.

Lena Lindahl, a junior docent at the Lake Superior Zoo, pets a bat named Bradley in 1991.

Charles Curtis / File / Duluth News Tribune

“My grandfather was such a kind man, he never wanted to charge anyone for anything,” Lynn Perry


filmmaker Isaac Goeckeritz. “When that zoo was built, every child, every adult, they were there.”

The Lake Superior Zoo does charge admission, but its staff members are undertaking a multipronged effort to increase its accessibility.

“We’ve opened up four new programs,” said Halligan.

“Museums for All,

Blue Stars,

Zoo for All,

and then CAP, which is our

Community Access Program.

We rolled them out in a month, and the perceptions are amazing. People are loving these programs, and the numbers show it.”

Zoo staff are addressing economic accessibility (Zoo for All, for example, provides free admission for families experiencing financial hardship) as well as physical accessibility (the Zoo Train can now provide Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible rides).

Then, there’s social and cultural accessibility. “Our (Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion) committee is always looking at accessibility and what can we do to be better,” Halligan continued.

“We do things to help people with sensory needs,” added Wilcox. “We provide information and tools for them.” The zoo is the only attraction in Duluth, and one of

just five statewide,

to have Sensory Inclusive Certification through the KultureCity initiative.

Two children reach hands through a fence to feed a llama.

Kiera Simanovsky, left, and Allie Bochler try to feed a llama at the Lake Superior Zoo in 2005.

Justin Hayworth / File / Duluth News Tribune

Of course, people have to find the zoo first. “We need the Lincoln Park vibe to keep coming (west) a little bit,” said Hedstrom. “People have a perception that we are really far out … sometimes we still hear people (say), ‘Oh, there’s a zoo here?'”

The CEO is hoping that a new main building can help increase the zoo’s appeal as a destination for all seasons. “When people come and they’re here:


then they can come and do indoor play.”

Of course, summer’s a nice time to visit the zoo as well. “We’ve got a lot of exciting things, and it’s just going to be a really great night celebrating 100 years of the zoo,” Hedstrom said about Friday’s Zoo La Palooza.

“A century later,” wrote Perry about her grandfather, Bert Onsgard, the zoo “continues to be a reminder of what one man can do with a vision and with love for his community. Dreams do come true, even in the hardest of times and even when it may seem impossible.”