Duluth zoo planning upgrades a year after flood drowned animals, damaged facilities

Sam Maida, CEO of the Lake Superior Zoological Society talks to the media about the status of the zoo in Duluth on Saturday, June 23, 2012, after record rainfall caused flash flooding in the area earlier in the week, damaging zoo exhibits and drowning several animals. (AP Photo/Clint Austin, The Duluth News-Tribune)

Admission to Duluth's Lake Superior Zoo is free today, a year after a devastating flood  killed 11 zoo animals and damaged buildings and grounds, including the train depot and playground area.

A few days after the flood MPR News reporter Madeleine Baran described the frantic search for the zoo animals that escaped the during the deluge.

As heavy rain flooded the Lake Superior Zoo Tuesday night, no one was there to notice that a polar bear and two seals had escaped from their enclosures.

The zoo's response to the flood took hours and left some residents wondering it was safe to leave their homes. Zoo keepers did not realize the facility was flooded until they received a call about a seal in the middle of a nearby road.

That's because, unlike the Minnesota Zoo and the Como Zoo, the Lake Superior Zoo does not have 24-hour security guards, cameras, or motion detectors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates zoos, does not require zoos to provide 24-hour security. Officials at the Duluth zoo said the flood was unpredictable and they had planned to install security cameras later this summer.

A chaotic scene unfolded after Duluth residents spotted the loose zoo animals.

Donald Melton drove past the zoo sometime after 2 a.m. and noticed what he thought was an injured dog in the middle of the road. He circled back and turned on his headlights.

''I'm like, 'What the hell is that?''' he said. It was a seal named 'Feisty'. Melton decided to call 911, but he couldn't find his phone.

As he said he considered whether to load the seal into his car, another driver, Ellie Burchar, pulled up.

''My first thought was like, 'Oh my god, there's a seal from the zoo,'' she said. ''Nobody even knew the seal was out or the zoo was even flooded.''

She grabbed her phone and snapped a quick photo, which would later be viewed by hundreds of thousands of people online.

The polar bear and two seals, Feisty and Vivian, were transported to the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory. Vivan died after emergency surgery at the Zoo in March.  Feisty remains at the zoo.

Meanwhile the Duluth zoo’s polar bear has been permanently relocated to the Kansas Zoo.

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Sam Maida, CEO of the Lake Superior Zoological Society talks to the media about the status of the zoo in Duluth on Saturday, June 23, 2012, after record rainfall caused flash flooding in the area earlier in the week, damaging zoo exhibits and drowning several animals. (AP Photo/Clint Austin, The Duluth News-Tribune)

Among the 11 animals killed in the flood were sheep, goats and a donkey. The zoo has brought in many new animals since the flood.  Darla, a miniature horse and the only zoo barnyard survivor, has some new neighbors, including:

  • "Lynnard" the llama

  • Five new sheep

  • Eight new goats (Mugsy, Spatz, Sparkle, Ace, Dunsten, Flyn, Dante, and Drew)

  • "Harry," a miniature donkey

A year after torrential rains produced widespread flooding in the Duluth area, the city's Zoo is still recovering.

The Lake Superior Zoo is in a low-lying area of the city, and director of zoo operations Peter Pruett told Morning Edition's Cathy Wurzer that about a third of the zoo's facilities were affected by the flooding.

Pruett said he knew the situation was serious when he got a call in the middle of the night that a seal was on the street outside the zoo. He thought it was a prank call.

"No way on earth that a harbor seal could be on Grand Avenue," he said.   "It takes me about three minutes to get to work and the whole way down there, I'm thinking this is not right. And then, sure enough, there she was."

Pruett said the zoo is planning upgrades to its facilities.

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