Haley Cope’s first year on the job as CEO of the Lake Superior Zoo has been eventful, to say the least. Formerly the zoo’s marketing director, she received her promotion to leadership in August 2020 — just a couple of months after the zoo reopened its doors to the public following a mandated three-month shutdown.

But the zoo has come back surprisingly strong.

So far this year, the zoo has welcomed more than 84,000 guests. That’s more than the number of people it drew in six of the past 10 years.

And barring any new COVID-19 restrictions on operations that might be required, Cope said she’s confident the zoo’s visitor count will crack 90,000, pushing annual attendance to the third-highest level in the past decade.

Lizzy Larson, left, and Brittany Behler look down on the Alaskan brown bears, Banks and Tundra, at the Lake Superior Zoo on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. Larson works at the zoo and Behler is a former employee who returned to visit. Both women helped care for the orphaned bears when they arrived in Duluth. 
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Lizzy Larson, left, and Brittany Behler look down on the Alaskan brown bears, Banks and Tundra, at the Lake Superior Zoo on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. Larson works at the zoo and Behler is a former employee who returned to visit. Both women helped care for the orphaned bears when they arrived in Duluth. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

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Sales of zoo memberships have grown, as well, with more than 2,200 households now enrolled — the most since 2014.

“The zoo went through a really tough year — not only with the pandemic beginning in 2020 and continuing into 2021 — but it also went through a big leadership transition,” said Jess Peterson, parks manager for the city of Duluth.

Peterson serves as an ex-officio (nonvoting) member of the Lake Superior Zoological Society’s board of directors, as the zoo sits on city parkland.

Emily Perala, head zookeeper at Lake Superior Zoo, gets ready to feed the gray wolves Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, in Duluth. 
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Emily Perala, head zookeeper at Lake Superior Zoo, gets ready to feed the gray wolves Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, in Duluth. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

With improved gate revenues, philanthropic support and help from federal COVID-19 relief funds, the zoo’s finances are also much improved. Earlier this month, the zoo retired an outstanding $247,000 line of credit that had been maxed out since 2016. Last year, the Duluth City Council voted to extend the deadline for repayment of that line of credit until October 2021, but Cope remains confident no additional requests for financial lenience will be required.

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Describing staff’s sentiment at retiring the debt, Cope said: “It feels like a great weight has been lifted off of everyone’s shoulders.”

Now, the zoo has turned its attention toward building a reserve fund to help it through hard times in the future.

As an accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the organization recommends a reserve equivalent to 20% of the operating budget be maintained.

A North American river otter swims in its habitat at Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth on Thursday morning, Sept. 23, 2021.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
A North American river otter swims in its habitat at Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth on Thursday morning, Sept. 23, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

With an annual budget of about $2.1 million, the Lake Superior Zoo would need an extra $420,000 to reach that threshold. It will be some time before the zoo can set aside that kind of money but nevertheless Cope said the near-term goal is to save enough to establish “a sizable contingency reserve.”

The zoo is back up to full pre-pandemic staffing levels with 29 full-time year-round employees now on the payroll and part-time seasonal staff ideally bringing that number to about 50. But Cope said finding that kind of help has proven a challenge, as local workers remain in short supply.

The zoo is now fully open seven days a week, and Cope hopes that will continue to be the case.

“About 95% of our costs are fixed, because they’re related to things like animal care, food and utilities,” she said, noting those expenses don’t go away regardless of whether the zoo is open for admission.

One of the new cougars suns itself on rocks at the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth on Thursday morning, Sept. 23, 2021. 
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
One of the new cougars suns itself on rocks at the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth on Thursday morning, Sept. 23, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Ticket sales have been greatly aided by five new exhibits opened in the past couple of years, including otters, wolves, a pair of cougars, black bears and a pair of Alaskan brown bears named Tundra and Banks.

The latter are the stars of the zoo’s Bear Country exhibit, which Cope says “really set everything else in motion” for the turnaround.

The exhibit returned to use a once-popular part of the zoo occupied by the Polar Shores exhibit, back when a pair of polar bears were part of the mix of animals on display. Following the flood of 2012, the exhibit was vacated, and Cope said its absence continued to sting until the Bear Country installation opened in its place last winter.

Alaskan brown bears, Banks and Tundra, climb on a rock in their habitat at the Lake Superior Zoo on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. 
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Alaskan brown bears, Banks and Tundra, climb on a rock in their habitat at the Lake Superior Zoo on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“Not having the heart of the zoo sitting empty any more certainly has helped us,” said Cope, who referred to the new brown bear exhibit as “a saving grace for us” coming out of the pandemic.

Peterson agreed that refreshing zoo exhibits has created new excitement.

“I would say we’ve turned a pretty big corner hereby completing the Polar Shores renovation and the (black) bear exhibits just across the creek. They’re occupied now. So, there is more to see and do at the zoo than there has been for many many years,” she said.

Skye the black bear wanders through his habitat at the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth on Thursday morning, Sept. 23, 2021. 
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Skye the black bear wanders through his habitat at the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth on Thursday morning, Sept. 23, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Cope credits dedicated staff, board members and the community for enabling the zoo to bounce back.

“We’re all working toward the same goal. It certainly has been a difficult year,” she said. “But the way I view it: If we can get through this, anything else is probably going to feel like a piece of cake. It seems a lot more doable.

“Within our organization, with the staff and the board of directors that we have, I think we’ve hit our stride. And it’s up from here,” Cope said.

The Lake Superior Zoo received a $204,000 appropriation from the Minnesota Legislature to develop plans to either renovate its existing building, built in the late 1920s, or to replace it with a new structure. Cope said that design work continues, with an eye toward making the zoo a more accessible year-round attraction.

The Duluth zoo, which is the 19th-oldest in the nation, stands to celebrate its centennial in 2023.

“I think we have been very focused for the past 1 1/2 years to make sure the zoo makes it to its 100th anniversary,” Peterson said. “But now, I have every confidence it will, and that it will live far beyond that, now that we are where we are. And the zoo staff has worked so hard to make that possible.”

Taj, the Amur tiger, suns itself at the Lake Superior Zoo on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, in Duluth. 
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Taj, the Amur tiger, suns itself at the Lake Superior Zoo on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021, in Duluth. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram