Council vote Monday will decide fate of the zoo

This isn't the first time the city of Duluth has contemplated turning over management of the Lake Superior Zoo, but it may be the most critical. That's because Mayor Don Ness has presented the Duluth City Council with only two options: Vote to tu...

Sam Maida, executive director of the Lake Superior Zoological Society, is anxiously awaiting Monday's vote. He said the society is ready and very willing to take over management of the zoo from the city as soon as possible. Photo by Jana Peterson/Budgeteer News.

This isn't the first time the city of Duluth has contemplated turning over management of the Lake Superior Zoo, but it may be the most critical. That's because Mayor Don Ness has presented the Duluth City Council with only two options: Vote to turn over all management of the zoo to the Lake Superior Zoological Society or the city will have to close the zoo.

In his State of the City address Jan. 5, Ness challenged city councilors (who delayed a vote on the zoo in December) to make the right choice when they vote Monday: "The Lake Superior Zoological Society is poised to take over operations of our beloved zoo," Ness said. "We can ensure the continued health of the zoo and its animals, while also immediately putting $338,000 back into the city coffers to help balance the budget. I encourage the Council to approve this agreement Monday."

Sam Maida, executive director of the zoological society, isn't taking Monday's vote for granted. Now, he says, is the time for concerned citizens to contact their city council members and ask them to support the zoo.

Maida is confident the zoological society is up to the task of running the zoo and improving it -- something that hasn't happened in recent years as the city struggled with budget issues and cut investment in the zoo.

A little background: Now, and since the late 1950s, the duties of running the zoo have been shared by the city (which owns the zoo) and the Lake Superior Zoological Society, formed in 1957 with the specific purpose of supporting the zoo. Currently, the city oversees the zoo director, maintenance worker and zookeepers, while the zoological society hires and manages staff to run the ticket booth, the cafe, the gift shop and the zoo train, as well as taking care of the zoo's marketing and educational efforts.


The change in management has been under serious consideration ever since the zoo lost its Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accreditation in September 2006.

Former zoo director Ryan Gulker, who left the job in frustration after a matter of months, said the "schizophrenic" organizational structure of the zoo made it very difficult for him to do his job well.

"The city of Duluth, the way it functions, the bureaucracy ... is not designed to run a modern zoo," Gulker told the Budgeteer after he announced he was leaving. "I'm not judging it for the way they run the police department or the water department, but it doesn't work for the zoo."

The AZA report essentially concurred with the former zoo director: "There has been an evident and admitted lack of cohesiveness between these two governing entities," the report stated. "However, both do realize that this cannot continue, 'as it is a road leading to the demise of the zoo.'"

The AZA report recommended the city restructure the management of the zoo, suggesting the society take over the day-to-day running of the zoo and the city remain as owner and essentially silent partner, rather than being involved in daily decisions over animal care and staffing. An assessment report conducted by a national zoo planning firm also recommended the city and the zoological society come up with a better public/private organizational model.

One of the biggest issues in the debate over transferring management of the zoo to the society has been the fate of the city employees who work there, among them one maintenance worker and 10 full-time zookeepers, plus a number of part-time employees. All of the full-time employees are union members -- who were initially told they would be laid off; although more recently, Maida said, the full-time workers were told by city officials they would be reassigned to other city jobs.

City Councilor Jeff Anderson is concerned about the zookeepers.

"Nearly 200 hundred combined years of experience with animals and our zoo will be lost if these employees leave," he said.


But those employees didn't get much in the way of continuing education under the city, something Maida plans to change when the society is in charge of the zookeepers.

The zoological society director talked excitedly about some of the interviews he's conducted.

"Part of making the zoo experience better is getting staff that interacts with the public on a regular basis," he said, "who work with the animal and the public. For example, a tiger can be trained to stand up and stretch out against the glass: That way the zookeeper can check out his underbelly, and the public -- what a photo opportunity. Behavior modification and enrichment make the animal more accessible, active."

Maida's also excited about the idea of everyone at the zoo working for the same organization. As the zoo has been run in the past, there were two groups of employees: those who worked for the city and those who worked for the society. While both worked at the zoo, they answered to different bosses. Union members even had a third loyalty.

"Everyone has a different approach," he said. "We are the only organization that's dedicated exclusively to saving the zoo. That's our only agenda. Everyone else has other agendas: the city, the unions, the city council. ... We need to have one team at the zoo and that's our team."

However, before the society can get busy with the business of taking over the zoo, at least five council members have to vote in favor of the change.

"I think they are hesitating because they have to be comfortable that this is the right move," he said. "But they have to be thinking also about the message that would be sent if they were to close a major institution like the zoo. ... If they vote to continue the zoo with us running it, they can always vote to close it in two years. But, if they vote to close it now, it's unlikely the zoo would ever open again."

Find contact information for city councilors on the city of Duluth's Web site, at .


Council thoughts on the zoo

The Budgeteer e-mailed all the city council members to ask how they were planning to vote at Monday's council meeting. We got replies from three councilors. (Replies were edited for length in the print edition; complete replies are included in this online story.)

Jim Stauber

"Our city (and surrounding region's population) is too small to support a zoo. Also, zoos nation-wide have begun to fall out of favor with many folks with concern of captivity vs. wild. That also impacts our capability to sustain the needed number of visitors.

With the Zoological Society boldly stepping up to the plate to do everything possible to maintain the operation, I think we as a city should support their efforts. Often non-government entities can do things more efficiently than government can and we should be willing to facilitate those efforts.

We may vote on Monday the 12th and I will be supporting this change."

Jeff Anderson

"I am still uncomfortable with the proposed contract with the Lake Superior Zoological Society, and honestly, I don't know yet how I will vote on Monday. There are still some unanswered questions. I have still not seem any operating budget from the society for the zoo in 2009. I am still concerned about what will happen with our 10 zookeepers. Nearly 200 hundred combined years of experience with animals and our zoo will be lost if these employees leave. I understand that we need to do things differently and that we need to move in this direction. I'm just not convinced that this is the right model."


Todd Fedora

"I'm planning on casting an affirmative vote in favor of the Lake Superior Zoological Society and feel that we have received enough information. I think the mayor and his administration, in coordination with the Society, have turned the operations of the zoo into a win-win situation. As you know, the budgetary demands on the city are growing and it's going to take a creative approach to turn negatives into positives at each opportunity that we can."

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