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Zoo Backgrounder

The Milwaukee County Zoo
Still Wild After All These Years

The Milwaukee County Zoo is a serene home to more than 3,000 mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles with more than 420 species represented. However, the Zoo has become more than that to visitors. It is a site for special events, holiday celebrations, summer concerts and temporary exhibits. 

Recognized as one of the country’s finest zoological attractions, the Milwaukee County Zoo serves as a resource to educate, entertain and inspire.

The wildness began in 1892 when the Milwaukee County Zoo was a simple miniature mammal and bird display in Milwaukee's downtown Washington Park.  By 1902, the Zoo expanded to 23 acres and had acquired a roaring 800 animals. Thirty-two years later, the Zoo became an entity of the Milwaukee County Park Commission. The arrangement gave the Zoo the resources it needed to grow and prosper. The chance to grow surfaced in 1958 when the Zoo moved to its present location on 200 acres of beautiful parkland where currently over 420 species of animals are on exhibit.

The first decade at the Zoo's new location saw several developments:  the Primate Building, Monkey Island and Winter Quarters construction. In the early 1960s, Grizzly, Polar and Brown Bear dens were completed, as were the Feline, Pachyderm, Giraffe, Bird, Small Mammals, Aquarium/Reptile, and Australian Buildings. In the 1970s, the Zoo continued to grow:  the Children's Zoo, Train Shed, and Zoo Hospital were constructed. The Dall Sheep Exhibit, the Gift Shop and Zoo Pride also were established during this decade of expansion.

Today, the Milwaukee County Zoo is among the top zoos in the nation. It is an accredited institution of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). In recent years, the Zoo has become increasingly involved in the propagation and conservation of endangered species. The Zoo is currently engaged in several significant breeding programs, including the endangered Humboldt penguin. Our Zoo also is home to one of the largest captive groups of bonobos, a highly endangered species of great ape. Each new birth of a bonobo marks a definite sign of the Zoo’s commitment to conservational programs such as the Species Survival Plan (SSP) in which the Zoo participates.

The Zoo is under the direction of Charles Wikenhauser. A 115-member staff provides the necessary support to maintain a high quality park, while continually developing innovative ways to help the Zoo reach and maintain its attendance and revenue goals.

In order to remain current in its operations, and adhere to the growing needs of the animals, the Zoo initiated an expansion and renovation master plan in 1985. This plan saw the completion of the Wolf Woods, the Polar Bear and Sea Lion Exhibits, the Dairy Complex and the Peck Welcome Center.

More additions and renovations have taken place at the Milwaukee County Zoo. The $10.7 million primate facility is one such plan. Apes of Africa opened in May, 1992 and houses Western lowland gorillas and bonobos. The complex was designed to closely represent the West African rain forest. It provides the gorillas and bonobos with surroundings that are similar to their natural environment.

In 1993, the 25-year-old Aquarium and Reptile Building closed for renovations. The new Aquatic & Reptile Center (ARC) officially opened to the public in 1995.

The $3.3 million project, equally funded by the Zoo and the Zoological Society of Milwaukee County, features a 28,000-gallon Pacific Coast Marine Aquarium, housing a variety of sharks and fish. Other highlights of the ARC include “Lake Wisconsin,” the centerpiece exhibit that displays 30 species of Wisconsin fish.

In 2002, the Zoo unveiled a renovated Macaque Island outdoor exhibit for our Japanese macaques. These lively animals now have a higher mountain to climb on, more nooks and crannies to hide behind and additional enrichment items to keep their minds active. Waterfalls, shrubs and vines complete this inviting habitat.

The year 2003 marked the start of the Feline Building renovation. The $7.2 million project provides larger and more realistic exhibit spaces for these magnificent animals and enhances their quality of life. The new Florence Mila Borchert Big Cat Country was unveiled to thousands of anxious visitors in the summer of 2005, and showcased new residents such as jaguars and young African lions.

The year 2003 also marked the completion of the Animal Health Center. Made possible by Milwaukee County, the Zoological Society and major gifts from the Gretchen and Andrew Dawes Charitable Trust and Holz Family Foundation, this facility serves to further enhance the veterinary care of our animal collection. Features include: a 1,000-square-foot observation area for the public to view surgery and treatment rooms, wards with shallow pools for waterfowl, cold rooms for animals such as penguins, warm rooms for reptiles and sterile surgery rooms.

The year 2004 saw the completion of the Karen Peck Katz Conservation Education Center. This spacious new building has two levels, eight classrooms (five more than the previous building), new computers and a “green” roof with environmentally-friendly plantings.

In 2005, the Zoo opened the newly renovated Northwestern Mutual Family Farm, formerly the Children’s Zoo. Visitors can now get up close with native wildlife and farm animals, as educational presentations are offered daily in the new Stackner Animal Encounter Building. A “play and climb” area, walk-through butterfly garden and renovated Birds of Prey Theater complete the experience.

In the summer of 2008, the Zoo welcomed a flock of Caribbean flamingos, who took up residence across from the Mahler Family Aviary. Visitors come face to face with these striking birds in their lush exhibit, the Idabel Wilmot Borchert Flamingo Exhibit and Overlook. 

Also in 2008, the Zoo unveiled a new front entrance mall – the U.S. Bank Gathering Place. This attractive new area features a spacious, light-filled atrium with a renovated Flamingo Café, a counter-style snack bar, new coffee shop, two gift shop areas, an electronic information board, customer-service area and new restrooms. This building marked the final project of the New Zoo II Capital Campaign to improve the Zoo. The $30 million-plus campaign, started in 2001, was run by the public-private partnership of Milwaukee County and the non-profit Zoological Society.

In 2011, the Zoo opened a new outdoor public exhibit for the bonobo group. These rare and charismatic great apes are now able to explore 500 feet of elevated mesh passageways displayed in the Zoo’s forest. This unique exhibit was specially designed to replicate the bonobos’ native habitat of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa.

Also in 2011, the SkyTrail Explorer Ropes Course and Zip Line opened as a new attraction option for visitors. This new permanent activity features a 500-foot zip line and two ropes courses, one for children and one for adults. These adventure courses are open in the spring, summer and fall.

In 2012, the Zoo completed the renovated entrance to the Northwestern Mutual Family Farm, which includes an outdoor museum of early farm equipment and interpretive graphics.

The first phase of improvements to our Black Bear Exhibit, made possible by a donation from MillerCoors, also was completed. The improvements emphasize the importance of clean water, water conservation and the natural habitats that depend on water.

In the summer of 2014, the Zoo presents “Sting Ray & Shark Bay” sponsored by Sendik’s Food Markets, as its special summer exhibit. Running May 24 through September 1, the exhibit will feature several species of harmless sting rays and sharks, all of which our visitors can touch as they glide through their shallow pools. The exhibit is $2 per person.

Recent Zoo undertakings include the completion of the first planning phase of a new 10-year Zoo Master Plan, which will address improvements in animal exhibits, visitor attractions and amenities, service facilities and operations.

It’s clear that the Milwaukee County Zoo is, and will continue to be, one of Wisconsin’s premiere attractions. With its renowned animal collection and special exhibitions, the Zoo offers visitors a course in education, conservation and enjoyment.

For more information, call Zoo Public Affairs and Services: 414.256.5466.