DULUTH — People still talk about Bessie.
“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
of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center are 57 years old.
The 100-year-old zoo is still here, and
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.”
The need for a zoo was clear among Duluth residents who were
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
“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
“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.”
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.”
“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.
and then CAP, which is our
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
to have Sensory Inclusive Certification through the KultureCity initiative.
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.”