August 4, 1965: Duluth Zoo names new director, ending controversy

On this day in Duluth in 1965, the Duluth Zoo officially named Robert Wahlsten its new director, ending a six-month controversy over who should run the zoo. Joseph Mayo had been the acting head of the zoo since the retirement of Lloyd Hackl. Wahlsten had worked as a caretaker at the zoo since 1950—but Mayo passed the Civil Service test and Wahlsten had not. When local union officials pointed out that Mayo did not meet the position’s one-year residency requirement, the job reopened and was awarded to Wahlsten (Mayo immediately resigned). The Civil Service Board concluded that “Mr. Wahlsten possesses such combination of education and experience as may be accepted by the board as equivalent to the academic and experience required by this position.” Wahlsten served briefly before officials changed their minds and installed Mayo as director, and Wahlsten became the zoo’s manager. Mayo served as director for just two years before he was replaced by the legendary Basil Norton. Wahlsten and Norton worked together to bridge the gap between the Arrowhead Zoological Society and zoo workers employed by the city of Duluth. Former zoo veterinarian Tom Dougherty described Norton and Wahlsten’s work at the zoo as a “true partnership” that put an end to “years of political and legal spats between the city and the Zoological Society over the leadership.” Despite Dougherty’s declaration, spats over how the zoo is operated continue to this day. Read a history of Duluth’s zoo here.

Joseph Mayo holding the Duluth Zoo’s most famous resident, Mr. Magoo the mongoose. (Image: Erin Walsburg)