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City zoo faces major challenges

The citizens of Duluth love their zoo, Parks and Recreation Director Carl Seehus said -- now it's time to get them involved in preserving and improving it.

The citizens of Duluth love their zoo, Parks and Recreation Director Carl Seehus said -- now it's time to get them involved in preserving and improving it.

Lake Superior Zoo Director Ryan Gulker knows he has a lot of work ahead of him. Soon after arriving on the job last month, Gulker was shocked to learn that the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums flunked the city zoo.

A lot needs to be done to understand how to regain the zoo's vital professional accreditation as well as to get the beloved institution's buildings and infrastructure restored and modernized in the next few years.

"Overall, we're optimistic for the chances for the future," said Sam Maida, the Lake Superior Zoo Society's executive director. "Sometimes you don't realize how things look to the outside because you are there all the time. Sometimes out of adversity comes a bright future."

One of his first challenges, Gulker said, will be to find ways to squeeze out more revenue and find employee cost savings without asking for more city money, cutting an already-bare bones staff or raising ticket prices.

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With money from the Lake Superior Zoological Society, Gulker has ordered an $8,500 rapid business assessment

Gulker said he wants to keep the public up-to-date on every improvement and accomplishment. That sort of strategy will be central to getting people to be stakeholders in the zoo, he said.

It's unclear how much it will cost to get the zoo back in shape. Gulker said he wants to reapply for accreditation in March 2008.

The bad news

The News Tribune reviewed copies of the AZA reports from 2001 and 2006. In them, AZA inspectors said that the city "severely" under-funded building repair and maintenance.

Seehus was given the latest AZA report with about 20 items listed under "major concerns." It included one big-ticket item: the failing water filtration system for Polar Shores, where the polar bears live.

The inspectors also called the zoo's general housekeeping "dismal" in almost every area of the zoo. Structural problems include the tiger observation deck, which is badly deteriorated; the Australian kangaroo and bird walkthroughs, which need major sprucing up; and the Griggs Learning Center roof leaks -- "to name a few," according to the report.

Gulker said one of his first acts will be to rid the zoo of the deer exhibit and find homes for most of the birds in the zoo's oversized roaming packs of turkeys and peacocks.

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The reindeer are already gone, he said. The hoofed animals should not have been living on a hillside anyway, where they've contributed to erosion.

But most of the zoo's physical problems are behind the scenes, Gulker said. He was told by one of his friends on the AZA team that they only stopped writing up concerns because they ran out of time.

"Everything in there is what I would consider to be accurate," he said of the report.

Seehus said his department knew Polar Shores was showing its age. But the 2001 AZA evaluation did not identify Polar Shores as a concern at all.

No one knew the zoo could lose its accreditation, Maida, Mayor Herb Bergson and Seehus said.

Zoo scapegoat?

The zoo's former director, Mike Janis, said he was made the scapegoat by Bergson and Seehus when they announced the accreditation loss several weeks ago.

Janis, who runs the Binghamton, N.Y., zoo, said he warned Seehus and Bergson in several memos over the past five years.

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"As far as it being a surprise, Carl [Seehus] and I went over the concerns of the accreditation team several years before," Janis said. "Because after the last accreditation [five years ago], they told us if the budget loses any more or goes flat, we won't make it next time. All the proper notices were made to the city, and nothing ever happened."

When Bergson was asked if he'd received one of Janis's reports on the zoo's troubles, he replied, "Where are the memos?"

A News Tribune Data Practices Act request did not uncover documents to back up Janis' alleged early warnings.

The AZA report stated that the lack of an animal supervisor puts too much on the director's plate. In response, Seehus budgeted for a veterinarian and animal curator for next year.

What he also needs is a maintenance staff, Gulker said. The zoo doesn't have one, except for a part-time handyman, Gulker said. He blamed numerous smaller deficiencies cited by the AZA, such as downed fence poles and open electrical boxes, on that fact.

Zoo usually in the red

The zoo has 11 full-time city employees and a proposed 2007 budget of $1.05 million that doesn't include money for capital improvements. Ten years ago, the zoo had about an annual budget of about $1.4 million.

The zoo typically operates up to $500,000 in the red, according to the city. In recent years, though, it's had the benefit of receiving Duluth tourism tax dollars and state lottery proceeds totaling about $300,000 a year.

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Since 1993, the Lake Superior Zoo Society has handled admissions, marketing, educational programs and some fundraising.

"The society has not seriously demonstrated the understanding of the need for them to raise/generate funds in support of multiple aspects of the zoo," the 2006 AZA report stated. "It has lacked the vision of what the zoo could achieve by not seeing the future big picture. ... There has been an evident and admitted lack of cohesiveness between these two governing entities."

In the past, the society has raised money for capital projects, such as the $444,000 Primate Conservation Center.

The society has an advantage over the city because it's a nonprofit. People just don't want to donate to their government, society officials said.

Zoo attendance is also down significantly. Maida said he expects the zoo to draw fewer than 108,000 visitors in 2006. Five years ago, 128,000 people bought tickets.

He blames the drop on a lack of new exhibits and activities as well as more competition from other tourist attractions, poor weather and generally less free time and money for young families

"We haven't given the public anything new and exciting since the primate exhibit was redone [in 1998]," Maida said.

Gulker said he will not be looking to expand. He also will not close any parts of the zoo.

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He has more modest ideas such as replacing the deer with wolves, and creating a children's outdoor play area on the zoo grounds with a dinosaur bone dig.

"I'm not naΓ―ve. I don't believe the city has a big bag of money that they can give to the zoo," Gulker said.

CHRIS HAMILTON covers the Duluth community and city government. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5502 or by e-mail at chamilton@duluthnews.com .

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