Questions for Duluth’s Lake Superior Zoo

The pooling water continues to rise, first covering their small hooves before climbing higher, clutching their stomachs in its cold embrace. Back peddling and splashing through the water, searching for a foot hold on higher ground, the barnyard stock focus on the immediate threat, instinct not allowing their eyes to search nearby for their keepers. Soon it will be over, early reports will officially list 11 animals as drowned, including Jeb the dwarfed goat, sheep, and a donkey. The zoo’s staff will be left to pick up the pieces, searching for bodies days after the rains stop and flooding continues to plague the grounds.

The above scenario played across my mind’s eye as I read news reports from Duluth, MN, following record rainfalls that dumped nearly a foot of water over several days, most heavily this past Tuesday and Wednesday. Flash flooding advisories and recounts of extensive property damage continue to grab headlines. The news of animal deaths due to drowning at the Lake Superior Zoo have polarized animal welfare advocates and zoo-goers since the initial reports spread across the web.


An early timeline of events has flood warnings issued by the National Weather Service as early as Tuesday.

Questions abound in chat rooms and on the zoo’s Facebook page where supporters and detractors clash.

Supporters overwhelmingly defend the zoo’s response as compassionate, quick, and responsible. The media reports detailing the late night to early morning pursuit of escaped animals, including two seals and a polar bear, are cited repeatedly. The same reports are referenced by others questioning why the animals were not under watch following flood advisories, why domesticated farm animals were not transported to a safer location, and a possible lack of disaster preparedness by zoo officials.

Better Safe Than Defensive

As a veteran of animal welfare services, I have seen and participated in a fair share of responses to natural and man made disasters, some hands-on and many others as a press spokesperson. Natural disasters, including flooding, fire, blizzards, earthquakes, and so forth frequently come with little warning. On several occasions while working for the Massachusetts SPCA, I assisted with and publicized the evacuations of animals in response to severe weather reports including hurricanes, ice storms, and flooding. In many cases, those reports never proved true, however in the cases when disaster struck, our staff was well trained and most importantly the animals were safe.

I too have many topics of discussion for the Lake Superior Zoo’s administration ranging from disaster team training to 24 hour monitoring of your grounds and the animals in your care. As the facts come out, as they inevitably do, over the course of more in-depth reporting, it will be interesting to see how the communications staff responds. After all, it’s not a question of love or caring, it’s a question of competency.

What do you think about the response by the staff at the Lake Superior Zoo? Was it appropriate or should extra measures have been taken? Let me know in the comments section below.


2 thoughts on “Questions for Duluth’s Lake Superior Zoo

  1. I used to live in a small town close to Duluth but moved to Fargo but my parents still live in the area. I graduated from North Dakota State University with a B.S. in Emergency Management with a minor in Crisis Communication. We flood almost every spring here in Fargo because and have great emergency/disaster procedures to prevent fatalities to humans and animals. I do not know a lot about the Lake Superior Zoo or their procedures but I have a good understanding of the proper creation and implementation of emergency/disaster procedures. I do know the Lake Superior Zoo received an accreditation from the A.Z.A. last September. I would hope that the inspections done by the A.Z.A. would incorporate emergency procedures and relocating animals. If not, they should, and if they do I would hope that those procedures would be more than “the bare minimum” of just having procedures in place, because sometimes bad procedures are worse than having no procedures. If someone determines that the deaths of these animals could have been prevented (which I think there could be a strong case) there needs to be a thorough investigation by the A.Z.A. and/or other organizations on the need for proper emergency procedures. Over and over people will make the claim that nothing could have been done because the severity of the flood; however, proper planning, training, and exercises by the city of Duluth and the Lake Superior Zoo could have prevented most if not all of the deaths. Remember there needs to be a holistic approach to emergencies and disasters by not only the zoo but by the city of Duluth, St. Louis County, and the state of Minnesota. When soft and hard mitigation measures are used correctly and efficiently they not only save the lives of humans but also animals. I do not know if there was any criminal neglect or abandonment but unintentional neglect is still punishable by the law. Minnesota defines torture/cruelty in statute 343.20 subdivision 3 as, “Torture; cruelty. ‘Torture’ or ‘cruelty’ means every act, omission, or neglect which causes or permits unnecessary or unjustifiable pain, suffering, or death.” If an agency does find the zoo to have inadequate emergency procedures or if they did not follow those procedures all bets are off. I believe there does need to be an investigation of the procedures, the training of the staff on those procedures, and the implementation of the procedures.

  2. This institution has had a series of problems and should never had been accredited. If the public really knew the truth, they. Would have sought the resignation of the zoo’s upper management. The CEO and Director should have checked on the animals by midnight as they live less than 10 minutes away from the zoo. With today’s technology, someone should have been able to monitor the situation even from home. I am sure this hit the zookeepers hard. They probably felt very sad and grief stricken. However, when you sit on a fence and don’t speak up, this is what happens. As some of you may recall, a flood also happened 2 years previous to this and the animals that died in this flood were the ones saved from the 2010 flood. You may also recall Ms. Larsen who worked for the zoo on the news stating “we have had an emergency plan all along, in case Kingsbury Creek would flood”. That was actually a big lie. There was never a plan discussed among employees. Mr. Pruitt was promoted to a director but has admitted he does not know much about certain animals (that are typically found in a zoo) and that’s just one of the many excuses he uses when it comes to not taking responsibility for the animals in his care and when staff reports that they told him something is wrong with an exhibit or an animal, he dismisses it until it’s too late. Mr. Maida, CEO, knows about the issues and does nothing about them. On top of that, he has lied to the zoological society. Let me just end in saying, when a director is informed at midnight that an alarm has gone off at polar shores, central to the zoo and you wait for awhile for the police to call you back, then they don’t so you roll over and go back to sleep instead of getting on your clothes and boots 20 minutes earlier and driving a few miles to check on the zoo you are responsible for… Think about what 3 to 4 hours earlier could have saved. Think about what 24 hour security or better technology could have saved. Turn back the clock, where’s that emergency plan??? You can say that the flood was a devastating act of Mother Nature and that is true However, there was no actual act of any kind of prevention. The zoo is responsible. Anyone who has ever been to this zoo on rainy day knows that when the water comes down the hill and rushes over the waterfall, the creek rises dramatically fast and there can typically be some light flooding at the zoo grounds on the lower level. Those animals should have never had to die that night or the way they did. Unfortunately, the effects that this has had on the zoo will haunt them for a very long time.

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