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Feisty the seal reminds of resilience 12 years after the devastating floods in Duluth
Feisty the seal reminds of resilience 12 years after the devastating floods in Duluth

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

Downpours washed away roads, flooded homes and swept an 8-year-old boy into an underground sewer, where he landed half a mile away, virtually unharmed. Flash flooding damaged the Northwoods and repairs took years and required more than $160 million in disaster relief.

But it was a single, helpless seal trying to navigate Duluth’s street network that became the face of the flood.

Feisty the seal. Or maybe it was his sister Vivian, who was washed away with him when 10 inches of rain pushed Kingsbury Creek over its banks and onto the grounds of the Lake Superior Zoo starting June 19, 2012. A polar bear named Berlin paddled out of her habitat. At the flooded petting zoo, 14 animals drowned and broke the hearts of their keepers. It would take nearly a decade to repair what could be repaired.

On the anniversary of the flood in June 2024, and for days before and after, rain fell, flooding streams and basements and leaving communities across the state desperately searching for sandbags.

Then the sun came out, giving the drenched Minnesotans a break and reminding them of their own resilience. Just like Feisty the seal.

“At 34, he is elderly but considered to be in good health,” wrote Emily Lavin, spokeswoman for the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Connecticut, where Feisty now lives. “His trainers love him and he is often described as a gentle giant.”

Last year, Duluth’s most popular seal survivor became a father for the first time. Sono, son of Feisty, was named after his new hometown of South Norwalk, Connecticut.

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

Splashing around the streets of Duluth was just the beginning of Feisty’s travels. While Duluth was being 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 working at the Como Zoo Conservancy when it greeted three visitors from Duluth.

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

One of the first things they learned — aside from the fact that Feisty was a good boy and not a good girl, as previously reported — was that there was another reason he was having 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. “He was always willing to train. He was smart. He could get around very well. He spent his summers on (seal) island – he had some seal and sea lion friends with him. Just a good boy in general.”

Seals evolved to hunt at night, using their whiskers to navigate their environment. When Feisty’s vision was affected by cataracts, his keepers adjusted their signals and training.

In 2015, he was ready for his next big move, to Albuquerque, where Gracie was waiting for him.

Keepers at ABQ BioPark were looking for a potential mate for their female harbor seal. Like countless other winter birds before him, Feisty made his way to sunny New Mexico. He and Gracie seemed to get along well, but there were no pups. Not yet.

The years went by. Feisty grew older and so did the seal enclosure at the Albuquerque Zoo. The zoo closed the enclosure and looked for a new home for Feisty and Gracie. They found one a few miles east. Gracie and Feisty and their new seal pup, Sono, are now a permanent fixture at the Norwalk Aquarium’s Pinniped Cove.

Meanwhile, at Como Zoo, you can admire a few more seals. Wallace and Medusa – “she will melt your heart,” promises Dinsmore, “not turn it to stone” – are two visually impaired grey seals. They are joined by two male harbor seals, Kash and Kilian.

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

By Liam