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Lake Superior Zoo animals unfazed by record-breaking winter

During the colder months, cat naps get extended, monkeys move inside and bears take a break, but life finds a way as thick snow blankets Duluth's zoo.

Zookeeper Jessica Phoenix tosses food to some of the pigs as other animals wait for their treats in the barnyard at the Lake Superior Zoo
Zookeeper Jessica Phoenix tosses food to some of the pigs as other animals wait for their treats in the barnyard at the Lake Superior Zoo on Jan. 18, in Duluth.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — The goats appreciated that someone pushed a snowblower through their barnyard. The path was clear from their stalls to zookeeper Jessica Phoenix, who was mobbed by the ungulates who raced out when the barn door opened.

"When you hand them pellets, they're like a little goat funnel," Phoenix said with a laugh as she fed her charges. "You drop the pellets above their head and they just funnel them into their mouth."

The Skube family walks above the Barnyard area outside at the Lake Superior Zoo
The Skube family walks above the barnyard area at the Lake Superior Zoo.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Zookeeper Jessica Phoenix talks about caring for animals during the winter at the Barnyard at the Lake Superior Zoo as a goat begs for a treat
Zookeeper Jessica Phoenix talks about caring for animals during the winter at the barnyard at the Lake Superior Zoo as a goat begs for a treat.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

From a path above the Lake Superior Zoo's barnyard, Mariya and Steve Skube drew their daughter Vivian's attention to the goat mob. The Skube family was among the few guests walking the grounds last Wednesday morning, shortly after the zoo opened for the day.

"Vivian's a new big sister, so we're just bringing her on a little date to celebrate for her," said Mariya Skube as Vivian ran through the snow to enjoy her full reign of the outdoor play equipment. "She's been asking to come to the zoo."

"We told her she should put her snowpants on," said Steve Skube.

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In return for bundling up to get out to the zoo, visitors like the Skubes get a little extra attention. "During the winter," said zookeeper Bethany Wright, "I interact with guests more because there are less people, so I can do more one-on-one interactions."

Wright's focus is primates and nocturnal animals, who are snug in their climate-controlled building. They're nonetheless aware of the seasonal change, said Wright.

A Large-spotted Genet turns back to look at the window of its enclosure in the Nocturnal Building
A large-spotted genet looks at the window of its enclosure in the Nocturnal Building.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

"They can kind of tell that the season has changed, even if it's still warm in the building," Wright said. "They just decide that's their time to get a little more sleep, maybe eat a little bit more to bulk up."

Large primates like the Angolan colobus monkeys, ring-tailed lemurs and black crested mangabeys aren't released to their outdoor enclosures during wintertime, said Wright. "They still have their indoor spaces that they can hang out, and it's nice and warm for them."

Those primates can look outside and see the days grow shorter. That's not the case in the windowless Nocturnal Building, where day and night are artificially reversed.

"Lights are on at night, and they're off during the day so that guests can see the animals actually active during the time that they're supposed to be active," Wright explained.

Pabu, the Pallas cat, looks around its enclosure inside the Nocturnal Building
Pabu, the Pallas's cat, looks around his enclosure inside the Nocturnal Building.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Pabu, a Pallas's cat, has been deliberately placed in the building's coldest enclosure: a corner unit where two exterior walls let a little more of Duluth's winter seep in.

"Around this time of year, since it's cooler, he's a little more active," Wright said about the cat, whose species thrives in places like Siberia and the Himalayas. "He is a fluffy creature from a cold place, so he really likes the cold."

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The zoo's turkey vulture, if left to her own devices, would just as soon get out of town when the temperature drops. "They would migrate, normally," said Wright. "She hangs out with us all winter long in a warm kitchen."

In the primate building's kitchen, a room where Wright prepares food for the nearby animals, the vulture peeked through a window from the adjoining enclosure. "We have a bunch of different kitchens, so we (keepers) all have our own fridges and make our food in separate places so it's where we need it to be," Wright explained.

Forrest Michaels, director of facilities and grounds, clears snow near the barnyard at the Lake Superior Zoo
Forrest Michaels, director of facilities and grounds at the Lake Superior Zoo, clears snow near the barnyard.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Other birds are cool with the cold. Outdoors, Phoenix pointed to a pair of Cabot's tragopans named Couscous and Chickpea. The Chinese pheasants "have been here a few winters now, and they've been doing really well in the cold weather," she said. "You'd be amazed."

The tragopans' stone gazebo is a historic structure, customized for its latest residents with a heater they can move toward if they get too nippy. Nearby, a cluster of several vertical logs mark the beginning of an enclosure being constructed for red pandas the zoo plans to add this spring.

Phoenix said she's excited to welcome the pandas, personable creatures who enjoy interacting with people. "There's a lot of stuff that's different about them compared to other animals," she said. "They get the name 'panda' from the way their paws work. ... They're not actual, true bears."

The zoo's actual brown bears chill out during the winter. "They go into what's called torpor," said Caroline Routley, the zoo's marketing manager. "They reduce their metabolism by lowering their heart rate, and they just sleep. We feed them, still, every day."

Bam Bam, a Yellow-billed Hornbill, looks into the camera from his enclosure at the Lake Superior Zoo
Bam Bam, a yellow-billed hornbill, looks into the camera from his enclosure.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Routley paused. "How do you feed them?" she asked Phoenix.

"You just throw it in," replied the zookeeper.

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A Prehensile-tailed Porcupine hangs out on a branch in the Nocturnal Building at the Lake Superior Zoo
A prehensile-tailed porcupine hangs out on a branch.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

While the bears snooze, the zoo's grounds crew stays busy clearing paths for both people and animals. That's been no mean feat in a winter that broke Duluth's record for December snowfall.

"We have a very dedicated group of maintenance guys," said Phoenix. "The three of them have been diligently moving snow all winter long."

While life at the zoo is a little slower at the moment, it will ramp up again soon. As the zoo prepares to celebrate its hundredth birthday with a historical exhibit, it's at something of a turning point.

"2022 was quite a historic year in many ways," CEO Haley Hedstrom said at the zoo's annual meeting Jan. 12. "Our most significant achievement in 2022 was being awarded accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums."

A family of Angolan Colobus monkeys play in the Primate Conservation Center at the Lake Superior Zoo
A family of Angolan Colobus monkeys play in the Primate Conservation Center.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Achieving that renewed accreditation involved updating the zoo's master strategic plan and forming the institution's first-ever committee for diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion.

"It really opens the door for more conversation with various groups across the community and make sure they can see themselves here," said Hedstrom at the annual meeting, "because we are a place for everyone."

The zoo is also laying groundwork — conceptually, at least — for a replacement of its main building. If the zoo receives hoped-for funding from state bonding funds and other sources, construction will likely take place from 2026-2028.

A Ring-tailed Lemur inspects a snack in the Primate Conservation Center at the Lake Superior Zoo
A ring-tailed lemur inspects a snack in the Primate Conservation Center.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Among the features of the proposed new building will be expanded play space for families who want to visit the zoo on days when it's too cold to spend much time outside. With temperatures in the 20s last Wednesday, the Skube family was able to enjoy time both indoors and out.

"This is the first time we've, probably, come in the winter," said Mariya Skube. "It's nice to have some of the indoor area to be able to use, and it is kind of fun to see the winter. The wolves, (our daughter) liked to go see today."

Winter at the zoo is new to some of the animals as well: the several babies born in 2022. "We had the baby goral this year," said Phoenix, "so they had to learn how to walk in snow."

Chinese gorals are small goat-like ungulates, also known as primarily large mammals with hooves.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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