Change for the GoodThere’s a sea change welling at the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth. It officially started last spring, when the City of Duluth turned over control of the zoo to the Lake Superior Zoological Society. In actuality, however, the change started at least a couple years before that, when the zoo lost its Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation in 2006.
By: Story and Photography by Jana Peterson, Living North Magazine
There’s a sea change welling at the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth. It officially started last spring, when the City of Duluth turned over control of the zoo to the Lake Superior Zoological Society. In actuality, however, the change started at least a couple years before that, when the zoo lost its Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation in 2006.
At that point, nearly everyone involved with the zoo acknowledged that the existing model — which had the city and the Lake Superior Zoological Society running the zoo jointly — wasn’t working.
“The city’s operational funding of the LSZ has been essentially flat for the last five years,” the AZA report read. “Building repair and maintenance has been severely underfunded.”
Both the AZA report and a rapid assessment report from a national zoo planning firm recommended the zoo restructure.
Ryan Gulker, who had recently been hired as zoo director, bluntly referred to the joint operation of the zoo as “schizophrenic.”
The end result? The not-for-profit zoological society has taken over all aspects of running the zoo, although the city still owns the zoo property and is a partner with the regional zoo, the state’s second-oldest and third-largest zoo.
While the transition wasn’t simple or easy — the zoological society had to change over all its animal care staff over a 60-day period — the results are starting to show in the behavior of the animals.
“Things have changed in so many ways, all for good,” said Anita Johnson, marketing and development director at the zoo.
Johnson rattled off a list of good news:
Despite the recession, attendance was up by four percent for the year through July. The zoo has a new curator, whose sole purpose is to oversee animal care. The new zookeepers are gelling as a staff after moving to Duluth from zoos and aquariums as far away as Atlanta and Orlando.
The filtration system at the zoo’s premier exhibit, Polar Shores, is being replaced this fall, with the state picking up $400,000 of the cost and the city paying $200,000. It’s not a moment too soon, because the current system is failing, as evidenced by the bright green algae growing on the lower windows. The Tiger Deck is also being resurfaced this fall.
Exhibit improvements are many. Two examples: The previously bare, concrete floors of the nocturnal exhibit are now covered in wood chips, resulting in a more comfortable environment for the animals and a better smell for visitors, and the foxes have a new den, a hollowed out tree carved with fox paws that was donated by Grizzworks, of Maple, Wis.
Other changes are more subtle. The tarantula’s burrow now abuts the glass, so visitors can see the spider even when it’s hiding. The animals are getting more enrichment activities from the zookeepers, who are training them to make caring for them easier on both the animals and the staff.
The zoo’s sole remaining polar bear, Berlin, is responding well to increase training efforts from zookeepers. (Bubba, long the star of the zoo’s premier exhibit, died of natural causes in 2007, leaving the zoo with only one polar bear and no chance of getting another until it regains its AZA accreditation. Getting re-accredited won’t be easy, but it’s one of the zoo’s top goals because it makes a huge difference to the mission and abilities of the zoo.)
On a Tuesday in early September, zookeeper Mary Warner demonstrated how she is working with Berlin to get the 450-pound bear to stand up: The zookeeper holds up her arms, showing Berlin two apples she’s holding in each hand. If Berlin stands, she will get one of those apples, treats reserved only for the desired behavior.
After a few seconds, Berlin stands.
Warner throws her an apple. The crowd goes wild (in a muted Minnesota kind of way).
While it’s certainly a crowd pleaser, training the polar bear to do things like standing up is more about improving her care than drawing visitors. Once the target behavior has been trained, many other behaviors can follow.
“We want to be able to get her to step on the scale voluntarily [without drugging her] in the next couple years, do mouth-opens, apply ointments, maybe even give injections,” Warner said. “If we can get weights on her every two weeks, then we know when to alternate her diet.
“When you start working with an animal one-on-one like this, you learn so much more about the animal — their likes and dislikes, behavior patterns — and it’s easy to spot when they have an off day, or when that turns into a pattern.”
Warner’s efforts with Berlin are part of a trend at the zoo, for all the animals, from the smallest to the biggest.
“We’ve increased and expanded enrichments for animals and the zookeepers are using their training to get the animals to cooperate in their own care,” said Leslie Larson, director of education and animal management. “It’s like being a pet owner and training your dog to allow you to brush its teeth. Ultimately it’s less stressful for the pet owner and the pet. We’re training the lions, bears, smaller animals, … even our snapping turtle is learning to come when its called.”
The next step, said zoo CEO Sam Maida, is putting together a master plan for the zoo, which will be completed by February (he hopes), in time for the Zoological Society’s gala, Paw de Deux on Saturday February 13th. They will be inviting the public to get involved with both activities.
In the mean time, people can take the zoo’s survey online or at the zoo, with more information will be coming out soon.
They’re also planning to open a new exhibit in the spring featuring a North American mammal.
“We’re not ready to share that yet,” Maida said.
Note: A version of this story originally appeared in the Duluth Budgeteer News Sept. 6.