The rich history of Lake Superior ZooIn 1923, Bert Onsgard, a Duluth printer, rescued a small fawn and built a safe cage for it. People came to see the defenseless creature, named Billy, and it gave Onsgard an idea. He campaigned for creating a zoo of sorts.
By: Laurie Mattson, for the Duluth Budgeteer News
In 1923, Bert Onsgard, a Duluth printer, rescued a small fawn and built a safe cage for it. People came to see the defenseless creature, named Billy, and it gave Onsgard an idea. He campaigned for creating a zoo of sorts.
He acquired a cassowary and a pair of lions, through funds raised by schoolchildren. Bears were trapped and brought to the zoo after they were found roaming neighborhoods in the city.
Since the deer was found in Fairmount Park, the zoo was aptly named the Duluth Fairmount Zoo. It was part of the growing City of Duluth Park system and was located along Kingsbury Creek, a Lake Superior tributary.
By the year 1928, there were more than 200 varieties of birds and animals. Wolves, elk, a moose, hyenas, monkeys and an elephant were all part of the Duluth Zoo. At times when there was no funding for the zoo project, Onsgard even paid for their food out of his own pocket.
Bessie, an elephant, was an all-time favorite animal. She came to the zoo in 1937 at the age of 12. The local community knew her well.
Before perimeter fencing was installed around the zoo, Bessie would often wander off the zoo grounds and stroll through the neighborhoods of West Duluth. One account was that a neighbor had to call a zookeeper one evening because Bessie was standing on his front porch.
In his haste, the zookeeper ran out the door in his pajamas to retrieve Bessie. When he got there, he took her by her trunk and pulled it over his shoulder and walked her back to the zoo. Bessie lived at the zoo until she passed away in 1974 at the age of 49.
During the Great Depression, American bomber units serving in the Pacific during WWII “adopted” a Himalayan black bear as their mascot. They even took it on several bombing runs. The bear was then donated to the Duluth Zoo a year after the war ended.
But that wasn’t the most famous of the critters that lived at the zoo. In 1963, an Indian mongoose was smuggled into the U.S. by a merchant seaman from a foreign vessel.
At the time, there was a federal ban on the exotic creature, which made its future most uncertain. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service ordered that it be destroyed, but Duluthians were adamant about keeping their “Mr. Magoo” at the Duluth Zoo. The outcry was heard all over the country and even up the government ladder. First, he received a reprieve from the Secretary of the Interior, Stuart Udall.
President John F. Kennedy went so far as to sign a presidential pardon, and the mongoose’s life was spared. Mr. Magoo spent his remaining days in his home, and he died in 1968. He was stuffed and is now displayed in a prominent area, to be seen by all who visit the zoo.
The Arrowhead Zoological Society operated the zoo for many years, but that ended in 1959, when the zoo became city-owned. In 1987, things changed dramatically for the Duluth Fairmount Zoo.
With $4 million given from state funds, and $3 million from the city, a plan unfolded to make the zoo inhabitants feel more at home in natural surroundings. The municipal zoo’s name was changed to the present-day “Lake Superior Zoo.”
The zoo’s main building underwent renovations, from animal cages to a restaurant, offices and a gift shop. Among additions to the Zoo are an Australian exhibit and many water creatures such as otters and seals.
The primate exhibition was revamped in 1998, and endangered species that are unprotected in the wild were acquired. The Willard Munger Animal Care Center (named for the late Duluthian and Minnesota state representative), is an integral part of the zoo, providing the best of veterinarian care for the inhabitants. There haven’t been many changes since then, with budget cuts and red tape.
With grant funding in 2006, the Zoological Society instituted the Community Outreach Program, which provides free passes to the zoo to families receiving assistance from area social service agencies, making it possible for them to experience the zoo’s history, programs and exhibits.
The zoo is a family-friendly place to visit. There is the Safari Café, offering affordable meals and snacks. Tiger’s Paw gift shop is filled with whimsical gifts, mainly pertaining to what the zoo is all about … the animals.
The Zoo Train has been a fixture on the zoo grounds for many years. While the new train is on wheels, the original train ran on a small track, and is fondly remembered by adults who rode on it as children.
Winter hours for the zoo are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Summer hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. starting May 26. Strollers, wagons and some wheelchairs are available for rent in the summer. The zoo is closed on holidays.
Laurie Mattson is an amateur historian living in Duluth.