September 6, 1998
Mel, the Lake Superior Zoo’s wayward kangaroo. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)
ZOO SEARCHING FOR WAYWARD ‘ROO
KEEPERS HOPING TO GET ‘MEL’ BACK
Wanted: Escaped male. Five feet, five inches tall. Gray hair. Dark eyes. Answers to the name, "Mel."
No, this is not some scary convict who just busted out of the joint. He’s a kangaroo — and he jumped out.
Keepers at the Lake Superior Zoo have been looking for the 4-year-old eastern gray kangaroo since he was seen leaping over an 8-foot exterior fence Saturday morning. Somebody either held or accidentally left open the door to a walk-through kangaroo exhibit.
Mel was spotted by some hikers heading toward West Duluth but hasn’t been seen since. Zoo officials are asking the public’s help in finding the wayward ‘roo, but they’re asking people not to go too far in trying to capture it.
"He is not dangerous by any stretch," said zoo director Mike Janis. "But anything that big, and with a set of claws, I wouldn’t want to mess with it."
Instead, Janis suggests people call the zoo if they spot Mel or, if the opportunity arises, lure him into a shed or garage with fruits or greens and close the door.
"I wouldn’t be surprised if he was grazing in somebody’s garden," Janis said.
Mel is described as a sociable and curious animal.
"Keepers he knows he’ll come right up to," Janis said.
Kangaroos are hardy creatures, so Duluth’s overnight temperatures shouldn’t be a problem. For now.
The bigger danger is traffic.
"As long as he doesn’t get hit by a car, I would say our chances of retrieving him are pretty good," Janis said.
The zoo received Mel three years ago for free from a zoo in Pittsburgh. Duluth’s zoo has had kangaroos on display for nearly seven years, and never has one escaped.
It’s rare an animal this size escapes a zoo, Janis said. A porcupine named Spike escaped three times, including once last winter when he wandered out of his pen via a snowdrift. A small owl had escaped sometime a few years ago.
Mel was sighted many times in West Duluth – from near the zoo at 70th Avenue West, to near Wade Stadium at 37th Avenue West. He remained loose for almost a week; among the searchers looking for Mel was retired zookeeper George Lindberg, who went out three times a day:
Retired zookeeper George Lindberg has been spending several hours a day searching for Mel, the Lake Superior Zoo’s missing kangaroo. (Renee Knoeber / News-Tribune)
Mel’s freedom came to an end about a week later; he was captured on Friday, September 11, 1998; this story appeared in the paper the next day:
WAYWARD ‘ROO CAPTURED
Mel’s Northland adventure has come to a happy end.
After nearly a week of freedom, Mel the kangaroo was captured Friday and safely returned to his home at the Lake Superior Zoo.
The 3-year-old ‘roo, which hopped over a 8-foot fence last Saturday to escape from the zoo, was found grazing at the Oneota Cemetery in West Duluth — about two miles from the zoo.
Mel was subdued by a dart from a tranquilizer gun. He was then loaded into a truck and taken back to the zoo. He regained consciousness about 30 minutes after being darted.
By noon, he was back on his feet and hopping around an indoor enclosure where he was being watched by zookeeper Nancy Butler. He was a bit loopy from the tranquilizer, but seemed OK.
Butler said Mel was in excellent condition except for some bumps and bruises on his nose caused when he fell after being drugged.
Mel has been at the top of Duluth’s most wanted list all week. Every time there was a sighting, and there were many, zookeepers arrived too late to bring Mel home.
"We were always there quick, but he was quicker," Butler said.
Mel was spotted about 8 a.m. Friday at the cemetery. A call was made to 911 and then to the zoo. Five keepers, a retired keeper, and a police officer all responded.
And this time, Mel hung around long enough to be taken in without incident. "He was just eating grass by the tombstones," Butler said.
The keepers were going to try to capture Mel with nets, instead of the dart gun — but his history of elusiveness led them to go for the sure thing, Butler said. On her third shot, Butler hit Mel in the fleshy part of his leg with a dart.
"He runs faster than we do," Butler said. "I was talking to him the whole time. It was excellent. He continued to stay calm even after he was darted."
George Lindberg, a retired zookeeper who searched three times a day for Mel, said he was relieved the wayward kangaroo was in custody.
"I feel good that he’s back home," Lindberg said, having feared for Mel’s safety. "You should congratulate the zookeepers. They’re the ones who got him."
Born in captivity at the Pittsburgh Zoo, this was Mel’s first taste of freedom. He came to Duluth in 1996.
The kangaroo who has been the talk of the town the past few days declined comment on his adventures.
"I’m sure he had a great time out there," Butler said. "I suspect he’s been raiding people’s gardens and eating lots of grass."
But the longer Mel was on the lam, the more worried zookeepers became. Keeper Scott Wisherd feared Mel would get wilder the longer he was away from the zoo, making him more difficult to capture.
"We were very concerned," Butler said. "He’s a valuable animal. We were worried he would end up road kill, or chased by dogs."
Butler said Mel is worth about $1,000.
Now, zookeepers must figure out a way to keep Mel at home. Butler said he will be confined to an indoor cage and porch area until the zoo can raise the fence around the Australian exhibit.
He will be back on display today, but can only be seen from the porch.
Lake Superior Zoo zookeeper Nancy Butler feeds a piece of banana to Mel the kangaroo after he was captured in Oneota Cemetery on Sept. 11, 1998. (Dave Ballard / News-Tribune)
Mel’s story has a sad end – he died the next April after being injured while sparring with another kangaroo at the zoo. Here is an excerpt of the story from Saturday, April 24, 1999:
MEL THE ROAMING ‘ROO DIES AT ZOO
COLORFUL KANGAROO PUT TO SLEEP AFTER ` LUCKY PUNCH’
Mel the kangaroo, known for his daring escape from the Lake Superior Zoo last September, died Thursday after receiving a blow to the head.
The 4-year-old kangaroo was euthanized by a zoo veterinarian. He suffered a debilitating blow to the head from another kangaroo when the two sparred in the Duluth zoo’s kangaroo enclosure.
Zoo director Mike Janis called it a "lucky blow to the jaw of Mel.
"It was a surprise to all of us," Janis said. "We noticed he was drooling quite a bit and there was mucus around his nose. That’s not normal for a kangaroo."
The kangaroo was examined by the vet who found damage to Mel’s upper jaw. "If he were to have been kept alive, we would have had to tube-feed him," Janis said. "His quality of life would have gone down considerably."
Mel will be buried somewhere near the zoo, Janis said.
Janis said it was not uncommon for Mel and the older, dominant male kangaroo to spar. Battles between Jack, who is 8-to-10 years old, and Mel usually resulted in no damage to either animal.
Two kangaroos remain at the zoo, Jack and an older
female named Silver. Janis said the zoo may add the wallaby to the
Australian exhibit, rather than find a kangaroo to replace Mel. …
In early September, Mel became the talk of the town when he escaped from the zoo, roaming around western Duluth eating grass and flowers for five days. He even gained national attention as the story of the wandering ‘roo was reported in newspapers, on radio and television.
Mel was captured at Oneota Cemetery, where he was found grazing. He was confined to his enclosure and an outdoor porch after his capture. Janis said Mel would have been reintroduced to the Australian exhibit when the zoo expanded its hours this week. The fences around the enclosure were even raised to prevent him from leaving again.
Officials are still uncertain whether Mel jumped out of the Australian exhibit or if he slipped out when a door was held open. Janis received reports of both. …
Before coming to Duluth, Mel had a history of stirring up trouble. In fact, the Lake Superior Zoo received Mel at no cost after he made several escape attempts from a Pittsburgh zoo.
"He was apparently a bit of a trouble maker," Janis said.
Mel was also a local celebrity, and now a part of Northland lore.