Duluth zoo receives crucial accreditation

The Lake Superior Zoo has been working for months to earn an industry seal of approval that could help it gain access to additional resources.

At the Lake Superior Zoo.
The Lake Superior Zoo’s brown bears watch visitors after being fed May 23.
Steve Kuchera / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Staff at the Lake Superior Zoo have been working for nearly a year to get their operations reaccredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, and on Thursday they learned those efforts have paid off.

Zoo CEO Haley Hedstrom said it took four to five months for her staff to put together the 200-plus-page application they submitted to the association March 1. It was followed by about 30 pages of direct responses to questions from the association. Finally, a team of zoological experts arrived for a three-day on-site inspection at the zoo, recommending several improvements that local staff then worked to successfully implement.

"They go over everything, top to bottom on the grounds, whether it's operations, our animal welfare and well being, vet care, guest services, marketing, financial stability, risk management or our board of directors," Hedstrom said.

At the Lake Superior Zoo.
Lake Superior Zoo CEO Haley Hedstrom poses outside the zoo’s nearly 100-year-old main building May 23.
Steve Kuchera / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune

Ultimately, the Lake Superior Zoo received a five-year renewal of its Association of Zoos & Aquariums accreditation, and Hedstrom said that credential unlocks a trove of resources, in terms of opportunities, access to expertise and financial assistance. But for the association's accreditation, she said the zoo would have missed out on at least $350,000 in recent funding.

The accreditation qualifies the Lake Superior Zoo to exchange animals with other member organizations and to take part in the association's species survival program, to ensure continued populations of endangered animals. Hedstrom said the Duluth zoo currently has 30 types of animals enrolled in that program and expects to gain another soon, with its anticipated opening of a red panda exhibit.


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"We're then really able to accomplish our mission not only in providing those close-up experiences with animals, but also sharing the conservation aspect of our work. We are not just providing an experience. We are making sure that species, like the red panda, whose wildlife habitats are critically endangered, are able to continue to live successfully for generations to come," Hedstrom said.

The Lake Superior Zoo first earned Association of Zoos & Aquariums accreditation in 1985, but briefly let it lapse in 2006 as the operation endured financial struggles. It undertook substantial improvements, however, and has remained continuously accredited for the past 11 years. That qualification was renewed Thursday at the association's annual conference in Baltimore, Maryland.

“We are thrilled to receive this prestigious accreditation, and I am so proud of the Lake Superior Zoo team for all of their commitment and hard work that got us here today,” Hedstrom said in a written statement. “This accomplishment speaks to our dedication to animal welfare and well being, safety, vet care, and being a place where all people can experience close-up connections with animals and know they are being cared for with the highest standards of modern zoological practices.”

“The public expectations for animal care are constantly increasing, as are our own, which is why AZA’s accreditation standards are focused on providing the best animal care possible,” Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, said in a written statement. “Our rigorous accreditation standards evolve based on modern animal research, ensuring a process the public can trust."

Fewer than 10% of the approximately 2,800 animal exhibitors licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture are accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. The Lake Superior Zoo is one of just three in the state to earn the seal of approval, joining the ranks of the Minnesota Zoo and St. Paul's Como Zoo.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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