Security of Duluth zoo under scrutiny after flood

Published 9:19 am Monday, July 2, 2012

DULUTH — Security at the Lake Superior Zoo is under scrutiny after more than a dozen animals died and three escaped their enclosures in last month’s flash flood.

It was reported Sunday that an alarm sounded three hours before zoo officials knew they had a serious problem. The security company followed protocol and told animal management director Peter Pruett of the alarm about midnight. The company also contacted police.

But police were not sent to the zoo, and Pruett didn’t learn of the seriousness of the issue until three hours later.

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It’s unknown if those three hours could’ve saved the animals, but zoo staffers, who have been lobbying for cameras on the perimeter and 24-hour security for years, said having a guard on duty around the clock would’ve meant quicker action.

“If there would have been somebody here to tell us there was a problem, someone would have been here sooner,” said lead zookeeper Maicie Sykes.

Zoological Society chief executive Sam Maida told the News Tribune on Friday that he hired a company for 24-hour security. He said he had planned to do so anyway later this month, but accelerated the process.

Until the round-the-clock security was hired, zoo guards patrolled the grounds until 10 p.m. In the past, trespassers have been able to get into the zoo along Kingsbury Creek overnight and throw things at animals.

Before he hired 24-hour guards, Maida acknowledged the zoo’s security needed improvement. But he also said the situation must be viewed in the context of the zoo’s history.

He said the zoo was having financial problems and was in danger of closing three years ago when the nonprofit Lake Superior Zoological Society took over its management from the city. Maida said the limited resources were put into animal care.

When the zoo was reaccredited in 2011, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums criticized the zoo’s security and said it “had a naive approach to safety.”

Maida said zoo management had been addressing issues. The zoo was working on getting surveillance cameras, and increased the hours that security guards were on site.

He said that at the time of the flood, the zoo was compliant with standards set by the association. The association’s policy says: “Adequate security system must be provided on a 24-hour, year-round basis,” but it allows wiggle room for zoos that can’t comply.

Spokesman Steve Feldman said the association doesn’t track the number of zoos with 24-hour security or cameras, but he said most small zoos don’t have overnight personnel and may depend on police.

Even if a security guard had been on site, Maida said, it’s no guarantee that six sheep, four goats, a donkey, a turkey vulture and a snowy owl could have been saved.

Zoo veterinarian Louise Beyea and Sykes, the lead zookeeper, agreed.

“I am not confident that, even had we been here to realize what the problem was, that we could have safely saved the farm animals,” Beyea said, “given that it was an incredible amount of water coming down the creek and it was pitch-black. I would have been very hesitant to ask any staff to risk their life.”

Pruett said that while the birds would’ve been swamped by the rapidly rising water, it’s possible the barn animals could have been saved.

“It would have been something as simple as opening the gates and letting them run free. I’m not too worried about a goat running free on zoo grounds,” Pruett said. “I would have liked to think that we could save them.”

On the night of the flood, a sensor at the Polar Shores exhibit was triggered about midnight. When Pruett was called, he was told police were dispatched and he would be notified if there was an emergency. He did not hear back.

Dispatch records show the security company tried to find someone with a key to the zoo, said Patsy Kingsley, communications supervisor for St. Louis County. Duluth police spokesman Jim Hansen said police need a key to get in, or they can only check the main building and look at the grounds through a fence.

Pruett said he didn’t know police needed a key, and he wasn’t asked to give anyone access.

Meanwhile, police were overwhelmed with calls from motorists who were stranded on washed-out roads. Five minutes after that first call about the zoo, dispatch records say: “Squads are unable to respond.”

Kingsley said police were never sent to the zoo.