Jennifer Brooks
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Twelve years ago in Duluth, it rained so hard that it washed the seals out of the zoo — and into our hearts.

Torrents of rain swept away roads, flooded homes and dragged an 8-year-old boy into an underground culvert and deposited him half a mile away, virtually unscathed. Flash floods damaged the Northwoods and took years and more than $160 million in disaster aid to repair.

But it was one baffled harbor seal, trying to navigate the Duluth street grid, who became the face of the flood.

Seal that escaped from the zoo during rains in Duluth in 2012.
Seal that escaped from the zoo during rains in Duluth in 2012.

Photo by Rachel Agurkis.

Feisty the seal and his sister Vivian washed away when 10 inches of rain pushed Kingsbury Creek over its banks and onto the grounds of the Lake Superior Zoo, starting on June 19, 2012. A polar bear named Berlin paddled out of her habitat. In the flooded petting zoo, 14 animals drowned and broke their caretakers' hearts. It would take the better part of a decade to repair what could be repaired.

It rained on the anniversary of the flood in June 2024, and for days before and after, flooding creeks and basements and sending communities across the state scrambling for sandbags.

Then out came the sun, giving soggy Minnesotans a break and a reminder of our own resilience. Just like Feisty the seal.

"At 34 years old, he is geriatric but is considered to be in good health," wrote Emily Lavin, spokeswoman for the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, Conn., where Feisty lives now. "He is beloved by his trainers and is often referred to as a gentle giant."

Last year, Duluth's favorite seal survivor became a first-time father. Sono, son of Feisty, was named for his new hometown — South Norwalk, Conn.

Feisty is the last of the zoo escapees. Vivian died during surgery in 2013. Berlin, born the year the wall fell, lived to be the oldest polar bear in human care in North America. She died last year at the Kansas City Zoo at the age of 33.

Berlin the polar bear snacked on lettuce in August 2012 as she acclimated to her new surroundings at the Como Zoo after being evacuated from the flooded Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth. Berlin would become the oldest polar bear in human...
Berlin the polar bear snacked on lettuce in August 2012 as she acclimated to her new surroundings at the Como Zoo after being evacuated from the flooded Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth. Berlin would become the oldest polar bear in human...

David Joles, Star Tribune

Splashing down the streets of Duluth was just the start of Feisty's travels. While Duluth rebuilt, Feisty, Vivian and Berlin moved to the Como Zoo in St. Paul.

"He was a really good boy," said zookeeper Kelley Dinsmore, who had just started work at Como Zoo Conservancy when it welcomed a trio of visitors from Duluth.

Feisty and Vivian were the first seals Dinsmore had worked with, and it was a learning experience for the entire team.

One of the first things they learned — other than the fact that Feisty was a good boy, and not a good girl, as previously reported — was that there was another reason he had trouble navigating Grand Avenue in Duluth: Feisty was going blind.

"Even though he probably couldn't see very well, he was very brave," said zookeeper Melanie Haut, another of his trainers. "Always willing to train. Smart. He could get around very well. Spent his summers out on [seal] island — he had some seal and sea lion friends with him. Just generally a good boy."

Harbor seals evolved to hunt at night, using their whiskers to feel their way through their environment. As cataracts dimmed Feisty's vision, his caretakers adapted their signals and his training.

By 2015, he was ready for his next big move, all the way to Albuquerque. That's where Gracie was waiting.

Zookeepers at the ABQ BioPark were looking for a potential mate for their female harbor seal. Like countless snowbirds before him, Feisty headed for sunny New Mexico. He and Gracie seemed to hit it off, but no pups were forthcoming.

Years passed. Feisty got older and so did the seal habitat at the Albuquerque zoo. The zoo closed the enclosure and started looking for a new home for Feisty and Gracie. They found one, miles east. Gracie and Feisty and their new seal pup, Sono, are now fixtures in the Norwalk aquarium's Pinniped Cove.

Twelve years after he escaped rising floodwater onto the streets of Duluth, Feisty the seal remains a lesson in resilience. Now 34 — geriatric by seal standards — and blind, Feisty is a beloved fixture at the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk...
Twelve years after he escaped rising floodwater onto the streets of Duluth, Feisty the seal remains a lesson in resilience. Now 34 — geriatric by seal standards — and blind, Feisty is a beloved fixture at the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk...

, The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk

Como Zoo, meanwhile, has a few more seals for your approval. Wallace and Medusa — "she will melt your heart," Dinsmore promises, "not turn you into stone" — are a pair of visually impaired gray seals. They're joined by a pair of male harbor seals, Kash and Kilian.

Those who knew Feisty aren't convinced his adventuring days are over. Maybe he's just waiting for the next big storm to carry him out to the sea.