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Local View: Zoo inspires, educates visitors to connect with animals, nature

As the controversy continues over the future of Lake Superior Zoo, information seems to be all one-sided, all disseminated by the city, and with little heard from the Lake Superior Zoological Society. The city seems clever and calculated with its...

Susan Wolniakowski
Susan Wolniakowski
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As the controversy continues over the future of Lake Superior Zoo, information seems to be all one-sided, all disseminated by the city, and with little heard from the Lake Superior Zoological Society. The city seems clever and calculated with its plans, and I suspect the society is being hamstrung by politics and policies and the city’s strategy.
Staff members at the zoo seem to have been forgotten in all this. The zoo employs about 20 to 45 people, depending on the time of year. Add to that the numerous contractors who complete projects at the zoo, and you begin to see the financial impact the attraction has on the city of Duluth. Staff members at the zoo are some of the most compassionate and dedicated employees I have ever worked with. They never seem satisfied with things as they are but constantly strive to improve themselves, to educate the public, and to enhance and enrich the lives of the animals. Since they work for a nonprofit, their pay is low. Yet their loyalty is high.
The zoo itself is so much more than a bunch of animals on exhibit. The zoo supports education and research and inspires people every day to care about the world around them. Local schools, and even colleges from as far away as Ashland, have used the zoo to enhance their classes, from anthropology to biology. How lucky students are to have exotic animals to observe as part of their curriculum. The zoo has participated in national programs for breeding through the Species Survival Program, which has tested new methods of inseminating the Pallas’s cats, a highly endangered species. The zoo has several species that are part of the breeding program, from colobus monkeys to snow leopards.
Some of the animals the zoo houses are rehabbed animals unable to be released into the wild. Eagles, turkey vultures, otters and more have been able to receive the care they need because of the zoo. Even Trouble, the charismatic brown bear that delights crowds on a daily basis, would have been put down as a nuisance bear had the Lake Superior Zoo not taken him in. The zoo’s Pere David’s deer is a most rare creature. This species disappeared from the wild entirely because of overhunting by desperate people in its war-torn homeland of China.
What will happen to these animals if Lake Superior Zoo is shut down? Naysayers of zoos would have them all wander to their home regions, free and singing “Kumbaya.” But the truth is these animals are not releasable, have been born and have lived in captivity, and would be shipped to another zoo away from the home and the keepers they have known for most of their lives. This is a slow and costly process.
One of the biggest things not being discussed is the magic. When someone comes to the zoo and has a “moment” with one of the animals, there is an inexplicable spark in their eye afterward. A monkey interacts at the window with a child. A family has a chance to howl with the wolves. A group hears Max the cougar “talking.” A docent gives someone a hands-on greeting with something fuzzy - or slithery or crawly - and a connection is made. Suddenly this person understands the importance of life in all its forms. They leave with the inspiration to go home and recycle an extra can or use less water or pick up trash. Maybe they even feel a little more compassion for their neighbors.
The point is they leave affected. The zoo makes a difference.
Think of how lucky the Duluth community is to have things like the symphony orchestra, the Great Lakes Aquarium and Amsoil Arena. We are extremely blessed to have a zoo, too! We would be less of a city without this resource.
The community needs to let Mayor Don Ness and the City Council know how valuable the zoo is to them. They can call, write or show up at a community meeting to speak their piece - before it’s too late and we lose this precious resource.
Duluth already has a nature park. It’s called Hartley, and it’s a hidden gem at the heart of the city. The zoo is a gem, too, and must remain a zoo, capable of inspiring guests to draw a breath in awe of the amazing diversity, fragility and beauty that is nature.

Susan Wolniakowski of Duluth worked at the Lake Superior Zoo 13 years, first as assistant manager of the gift shop and, more recently, until a little over a year ago, as director of guest services.

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Mile Podemski and Amanda Podemski show their support for the Lake Superior Zoo at a special meeting of the Duluth Parks and Recreation Commission last month. (2015 file / News Tribune)

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