New plans for a more compact Lake Superior Zoo have yet to be approved, much less funded, but they're already beginning to reshape the Duluth attraction's animal collection.
On Monday, zoo officials announced that Max, a 16-year-old cougar that had been on exhibit in Duluth since 2011, was moved earlier that day to the Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, where he is expected to live out the rest of his life.
"We have a number of things that are making this move necessary," said Julene Boe, the zoo's interim CEO. "One is accreditation, and another is the fact that that part of the zoo will not be part of the zoo in the future. So it doesn't make sense to invest a lot of dollars to upgrade it to what it should be."
Max was housed on the west side of Kingsbury Creek in an area of the zoo that had once been home to a bear den exhibit. It's on land that would sit outside of the zoo's fence line if proposed plans to downsize the zoo's footprint become reality.
Boe said the exhibit space Max had occupied dated back to the 1930s. She said it was one of the oldest exhibits at the zoo, although it was renovated about 30 years ago.
But Boe noted that the standards of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums have changed through the decades.
"It just is no longer acceptable to be used," she said.
While the size of the exhibit is adequate, Boe said it lacked an appropriate holding area - the place in back where the cougar was confined when zoo staff members were sent in to clean or perform maintenance.
The condition of the exhibit and its holding area were flagged as a concern by AZA accreditors five years ago. Boe said the zoo was granted accreditation at that time but was told that it needed to make improvements to the cougar exhibit.
The 2012 flood dealt the zoo a severe setback and likely delayed work on the cougar exhibit as well, Boe said, noting that she had to speculate a bit as she had just been appointed to her new post leading the zoo last month.
An accreditation team is expected to inspect the Lake Superior Zoo this summer as part of a five-year review regimen prescribed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Max the cougar might not be the only animal to be displaced.
Boe said the zoo also is looking for a temporary home for Trouble, the only brown bear in its collection.
Trouble is exhibited next door to Max, also on the west side of Kingsbury Creek. AZA inspectors had called for improvements to the bear exhibit and holding area, too, five years ago.
"My understanding is that it would cost well over $100,000 to renovate his outdoor exhibit," Boe said, noting that the investment could be for naught if the zoo's boundaries are redrawn, as proposed.
Plans call for a brown bear exhibit eventually to be located elsewhere, likely where people used to visit the zoo's popular polar bears.
So far, Boe said the zoo hasn't had much luck finding a temporary home for Trouble.
"We haven't been able to locate anything yet. But the fact that we're making this effort and we're also moving ahead with a plan to repurpose the old Polar Shores exhibit and renovate it to the standards that a brown bear can live in should help," she said.
Boe said zoo staff will be very busy preparing for the pending visit by AZA accreditors this summer and will need to focus on making targeted progress.
"It's the accreditation that probably is driving this right now, and the fact that we have other stuff to do," she said.
The cougar's move was timed to minimize stress, Boe said.
"If you can do it during the quiet part of the year, versus when we have a bunch of schoolchildren out here swarming all over the place, it's better for the animal and it's better for the staff. Then you can focus on other things," she said.
Max entered his transport crate without fuss and required no sedation for the journey to Sandstone, Boe said.
Tammy Thies, executive director of the Wildcat Sanctuary, called the cougar "one of the calmest cats we've ever picked up."
"It was uneventful, which is the best type of transport," she said. "He napped the whole way, and he got up and walked right out of his crate. He didn't growl or anything. He was just purring."
Thies said Max had not yet been released into an outdoor area and said she will be watching closely to see how he reacts to a female cougar named Tasha in a neighboring enclosure.
"Cougars typically are solitary in the wild, but in captivity here, as a rescue organization, we try to pair cats together whenever possible to provide more stimulation. ... But it will be up to Max to tell us if he likes Tasha. And it will be up to Tasha to tell us if she likes Max. If all goes well over the next few months, we might try a play date so they can have companionship," Thies said.
Both cougars have been fixed, so they cannot reproduce.
Theis said Max suffers from severe arthritis, likely exacerbated by the removal of his claws. The declawing occurred prior to his arrival at the Lake Superior Zoo, when he was being kept as a pet in Iowa.
Max will remain in retirement at the facility for the rest of his years, according to Thies.
"We hope he's with us for many years, but 18 to 20 years in captivity is pretty old for a cougar, so Max is in his golden years," Thies said.