Milwaukee County Zoo closed from 15 March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic and began a phased reopening from 13 June, with outdoor exhibits only.

Chuck Wikenhauser Milwaukee ZooBlooloop spoke to the director of Milwaukee County Zoo, Charles ‘Chuck’ Wikenhauser, to hear about the opening, the attraction‘s evolution since its beginnings, and the ambitious new projects on the go.

Wikenhauser has been an animal lover all his life, he says:

“I grew up on a farm that had a nice hardwood forest and a stream that went through it. So, I was close to wildlife as well as working with domestic animals on the farm. I have been an animal lover for as long as I can remember.

“I got a degree in zoology from the University of Illinois. Then I was fortunate enough to find a job in a zoo as a zookeeper; then became a director. I have been directing various zoos since 1973.”

He has been the director at Milwaukee County Zoo for the last 30 years. The zoo comprises around 190 acres of land, much of it wooded, with the exhibits interspersed throughout.

Wikenhauser says: “We have about 380 species, and 2,500 specimens in the collection. Our annual attendance is around 1.3 million people. We are quite an economic engine here in the Milwaukee area.”

Milwaukee County Zoo & COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis hit hard, he says:

“The three months we were closed cost us several million dollars in revenue. It is fortunate for us that we’re a department of Milwaukee County government, which had some reserves. But we’ve had about 90% of our staff on some reduced hour plans, going from four hours to 16 hours to 32 hours.”

It has been a particularly challenging time for zoos, with operating and maintenance costs remaining constant as revenues dwindle.

“We had developed a plan that was approved by the County’s Committee on Reopening Facilities. We started with 1500 visitors, just to see how that worked. And we are now up to 3000, which we feel is comfortable capacity.

“Everybody has to wear a mask. Physical distancing is a big issue, but people are so happy to get back that they’re putting up with all of that. We get compliments all the time. People say, ‘Oh, thank you for reopening. We missed you so much. We missed the animals.’”

Conservation initiatives

Milwaukee County Zoo has the largest population of Bonobos in human care in the world. Wikenhauser says:

“That has been a focus of breeding programs and conservation for quite some time. We have also been involved with the Humboldt penguins in Chile and Peru. That population is endangered because of fishing and the destruction of nesting sites.”

 

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Penguin pool advice: make sure you have your swimming buddy.

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The zoo is directly involved with 40 to 45 conservation programmes:

“We have sent staff to work with giraffes in Namibia, and rock iguanas in Jamaica and Grand Cayman. The zoo has also supported the Snow Leopard Trust for many years. We have snow leopards here ourselves, and just had a new baby born on Mother’s Day.”

There also is an emphasis on elephants at the zoo:

“We have African elephants here and have supported conservation and anti-poaching efforts in Africa for many years. This is through the International Elephant Foundation. One of the impacts of coronavirus has been to take funds away from anti-poaching units and initiatives. Unfortunately, this means that poaching is starting to rise again.”

Educating visitors at Milwaukee County Zoo

Talking about the severity of the challenges facing the natural world, Wikenhauser says:

“There are some really serious issues around those types of animals that are smaller, unnoticed or unknown to the general visitor or the public.

“For instance, there is the fungal outbreak in amphibians. Not to mention that the coral structures and colonies around the Southern portion of the United States, the state of Florida and into the Caribbean, are dying at off at a rapid rate.”

Elephants Milwaukee Zoo

“There are some captive efforts that we’ve been involved with, trying to create human care aspects. So that if there is a possibility for the reintroduction of coral, we’ve got something to start with. Those are facts that we try to get across, but people definitely tend to have more of an interest in saving the large mammals.”

Partly because of its wooded areas, the zoo also has a significant bird banding programme, he explains:

“Milwaukee Zoo is right on a migratory path from South through to the Great Lakes and then to Canada, and we’ve seen a decline in songbirds that migrate. It’s certainly something to be concerned about.

“We’re doing our part, however. We have a wonderful education programme. One of the new programmes that we’ve done is the Animal Connections Continuum. This is a three-year programme to engage second to fourth-grade students. It helps them to develop respect for and empathy towards animals.”

Learning respect for wildlife

Those who grow up in cities far removed from the natural world, he says, often only come across animals that are considered as ‘pests’: rats, raccoons, or opossums:

“But all wildlife needs respect, and that respect then leads not just to respect for the more charismatic animals, but for everything. Everything needs your help. So that’s a very important one.

“The other type of education programme we’ve found very effective here on the grounds and in schools, is  a performance-based conservation programme, Kohl’s Wild Theater.”

Kohl’s Wild Theater is a partnership between Kohl’s, the Milwaukee County Zoo and the Zoological Society of Milwaukee. It is a fun-filled educational programme providing theatre performances with a conservation theme. Kohl’s Wild Theatre uses drama, songs and puppetry, both at the Milwaukee County Zoo and at schools, festivals, and community events.

“It’s really entertaining,” says Wikenhauser. “And then you go away and realise, ‘Yeah, I understand how birds migrate. I understand the necessity of protecting turtles.’

Adventure Africa at Milwaukee Zoo

Adventure Africa is an ambitious three-phase project that the zoo has undertaken.

“Our present zoo was built in the late fifties and early sixties,” Wikenhauser says. “Originally, it started in 1892 at a park in the centre of Milwaukee. When some road construction was planned, it was going to demolish part of the zoo. So, they moved it to the larger, present site.

“Some of the original exhibits are past practical management and are not up to AZA accreditation standards. So we started with Adventure Africa, our African species exhibit.”

 

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Overhead feeders at Adventure Africa replicates elephants eating from the tree tops.

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“The first phase included a huge elephant exhibit with a 70,000 square foot indoor facility, a four-acre outdoor yard, and facilities for the elephants. We also had mixed species of zebra, ostrich, cranes, Impala, and another exhibit for forest antelope. That first phase was about $18 million; we opened it a year ago.

“We have just now opened our hippo exhibit, which is brand new and has underwater viewing. It’s fantastic. There’s this huge hippo, just right on the other side of the glass, and he’s resting his chin on the ledge of the pool there: people can’t believe it.”

COST of Wisconsin

COST of Wisconsin, an industry leader in theme and speciality construction, has been working on the Adventure Africa project, responsible for exhibit shop drawings, structural engineering, and scale modelling.

The scope of the company’s field crew included the naturalistic hippo pool with themed earthen/mud textures, simulated rockwork, two large fibreglass hippo sculptures, artificial tree stumps, and the artificial deadfall trees within the hippo pool.

COST of Wisconsin Hippo Exhibit

“In fact, they built the original zoo here,” Wikenhauser says. “We have worked with them on our exhibits since 1959 or 60: so that’s 60 years of work here. You can see the evolution of their exhibit creation to this very intricate, realistic work that we have today.

“COST of Wisconsin has been a very good partner for us, as far as developing our exhibits is concerned, and very generous, too. They have helped us to achieve so much.”

The company specialises in exhibit fabrication, theme facades, faux finishes, water features, aquariums and sculptural elements. COST of Wisconsin creates quality projects that have received AZA, ASLA, TEA, Cityscape and other national and international awards.

Future projects

The third phase of Adventure Africa will be to renovate the former elephant exhibit, the rhino exhibits, the red river hogs exhibit, and some others:

“We have the planning money to renovate that whole area. We will design it and probably start construction in late 2021 or early 2022, depending on some fundraising.”

Further projects are also in the pipeline for Milwaukee Zoo, says Wikenhauser.

“Once we finish with Adventure Africa, we will go to what we refer to as the Alaska Cold Coast. We have a significant North American section of the zoo, which was built at about the same time. That will be polar bears, seals and sea lions, brown bears, grizzly bears, elk and caribou. That will be probably in two to three phases.”

Grizzly Bears milwaukee Zoo

“Adventure Africa will cost almost $40 million, with half of that being supplied by the County government and half from private fundraising by the Zoological Society of Milwaukee. We have a lot of competition here, in terms of museums and other facilities that have capital drives. We’ve got to try to get our share, but still, be fair about it with the other cultural institutions.”

Facing the challenges of coronavirus

Here, once again, coronavirus has made everything a bit harder:

“With unemployment and the economy in general shrinking, there is just less there from a philanthropic capability. If we could get that back online, that would certainly be helpful. We need a vaccine.”

Wikenhauser grew up in the fifties when the polio epidemic was ravaging the world:

“I remember the whole family going to the school, and getting our polio vaccine in a sugar cube. I don’t know what form this coronavirus vaccine is going to take. But my plan is, once we get a vaccine, to invite families to come to Milwaukee Zoo for free, over a series of days. And then while they are here, enjoying a day out, they can get their coronavirus vaccine.”

“We could maybe encourage others, other zoos and aquariums around the world to do that same thing. So we’ll have a COVID-19 vaccine day/week all over the world. Come see the zoo or aquarium, and get your vaccine.”

Reopening Milwaukee County Zoo

“Right now, we’re just glad to be open again and to be able to share the zoo with our visitors,” concludes Wikenhauser.

“They’re so happy to be back, and we have really missed them. We had lovely spring flowers around here – we have a tremendous horticultural staff – and I’d walk around the zoo by myself, and see the beautiful flowers, and there would be no-one to enjoy them.

“So yes: we’re happy to be back open and sharing our zoo with everyone.”