Fairmount Park & Duluth’s Zoo

The Duluth Zoo at Fairmount Park, 1939. Photo by L. Perry Gallagher Jr. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

The Arrowhead Zoological Society Takes Over

The zoo continued to expand over the years, leaving few traces of the original Fairmount Park. For nearly thirty-five years Duluth’s mayor appointed the zoo’s management, which changed with almost every new administration. After Duluth changed its form of government in 1956, that system no longer worked. This prompted the creation of the nonprofit Arrowhead Zoological Society (AZS) in 1959 to help the city operate, maintain, develop, and raise funds for the zoo. The city maintained ownership of the buildings and property and hired the zoo director, maintenance workers, and zookeepers. The zoological society hired and managed staff to operate and market the zoo as an attraction. During that time the animal population continued to grow, with the addition of a giant tortoise, chimpanzees, kangaroos, and large cats, including a jaguar and a cougar.

In the 1960s the zoo played host to its most popular tenant, an Indian mongoose named Mr. Magoo. A merchant seaman had smuggled Mr. Magoo into the United States in 1959, but a federal ban on mongoose appeared to be a death sentence for Magoo. Duluthians were outraged, and their anger spread across the country and up the chain of government. During his last months in office, President John F. Kennedy signed a presidential pardon written by the secretary of the interior, and Magoo was spared. He lived at the zoo until 1968, when he died of natural causes. While Mr. Magoo was at the height of his popularity in 1964, Faru—the first black rhinoceros born in captivity—became a resident. Five years later a Volkswagen bus dropped off Nemo, an African lion famous for siring cubs two years after he had a vasectomy.

Basil Norton became the zoo’s director in 1967 and served until retiring in 1994. He is credited for modernizing the zoo, implementing educational programs, and operating some very successful breeding programs, particularly with big cats, hoofed animals, and primates. During Norton’s tenure fifty-seven South China tigers—considered extinct in the wild since 1996—were born at the zoo. Following his death in 2015 Norton’s daughter Amy told newspapers that Norton “hoped to inspire people at the zoo so that they would be dedicated to conserving animals in the wild.” During his tenure, the city added a wing to the main building, funded by a donation of $250,000 from Richard Griggs, a philanthropist who enjoyed big-game hunting. Griggs had many of his kills stuffed as trophies, which he wanted to show off at the zoo. Despite some backlash from those who, as Heffernan explained, “believed zoos were for displaying live animals and not dead ones,” the wing was built. Today the facility, named the Griggs Learning Center, contains very few of Griggs’s trophies and helps to promote Norton’s ideology.

Norton was followed as zoo director—changed to chief executive officer in 2006—by Michael J. Janis (1995–2005), Ryan Gulker (2006–2007), Sam Maida (2009–2013), and Dr. Dawn Mackety (2013–2016). Julene Boe served as interim CEO during vacancies, and Corey Leet will take over the position in 2017.

The Lake Superior Zoo became an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) in 1985 and two years later began modernizing the facility. With $4 million from the state and $3 million from the city, zoo officials began initiating a three-part plan that included more naturalistic facilities for its residents. The name was changed to the Lake Superior Zoo, and the Arrowhead Zoological Society became the Lake Superior Zoological Society (LSZS). The second stage of the plan moved forward in the 1990s and included renovating the zoo’s old main building, turning animal cages into offices, a restaurant, and a gift shop. The third stage was delayed after Governor Arne Carlson vetoed funding in 1996.

In 2006 the zoo lost its AZA accreditation after failing to make improvements called for in 2001. Two years later, zoo officials unveiled a master plan for a $40 million refurbishment. In 2009 the Duluth city council voted 6–3 in favor of transferring all of the zoo’s operations to the LSZS. According to the News Tribune, the vote came after Mayor Don Ness gave the council just two options: “Vote to turn over all management of the zoo to the Lake Superior Zoological Society or the city will have to close the zoo.” Under the LSZS, the Lake Superior Zoo regained its accreditation in 2011.

And then came the flood of June 20, 2012, which devastated many areas in the city. Kingsbury Creek became a torrent, sweeping through the zoo and damaging buildings and grounds. Fourteen animals and birds died, including sheep, goats, a donkey, a turkey vulture, a raven, and a snowy owl. The popular Polar Shores exhibit was hit particularly hard. A polar bear named Berlin floated out of her exhibit; while she stayed near her home she nonetheless had to be tranquilized. Feisty the harbor seal was found in the middle of Grand Avenue. Berlin, Fiesty, and Vivian—another harbor seal—and several other exotic animals were later moved to other zoos.

The flood also delayed the renovation of the park’s 1933 bluestone pavilion, built by the Works Progress Administration, until August 2013. According to the News Tribune, the formerly open-air facility was converted into “a three-season event and education center for hosting the zoo’s educational programming and special events.” The $520,000 effort earned an award from the Duluth Preservation Alliance in 2015, and the pavilion is now a WPA historic site.

In April 2015 the LSZS reported that during the previous year the Lake Superior Zoo welcomed 87,112 visitors. Later that month the Ness administration proposed several different restructuring plans for the zoo; ideas included scaling back the facility’s size, reducing the number of exhibits, and eliminating the animals altogether. After initial public backlash, the city and LSZS came together to create a “consensus concept for the future of the Lake Superior Zoo.”

Writing in March 2015, Duluth City Council President Zack Filipovich described the plan:

The footprint of the zoo will be reduced to about ten acres, all on the east side of Kingsbury Creek…. Educational opportunities will be enhanced with a new grizzly bear exhibit, an amphitheater for educational programs featuring live animals, and an exciting Forest Discovery Zone area that will mix education, play and up-close animal experiences…. The west side of Kingsbury Creek will be converted into a signature public park—Fairmont Park [sic]—with planned picnic areas, trails connecting the hillside and the riverfront, and a sledding hill for our exciting Duluth winters.

The Duluth City Council unanimously approved the plan on March 13, 2016, yet ongoing struggles to achieve accreditation and sufficient funding leave the zoo’s future in question.

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