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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 2,100 mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles, with 348 species represented.  However, the Zoo has become more than that to visitors.  It is a site for special events, holiday celebrations, summer concerts and 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 190 acres of beautiful parkland where currently 348 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 and Aquarium/Reptile Buildings.  In the 1970s, the Zoo continued to grow:  the Children's Zoo, Train Shed and Zoo Hospital were constructed.  The Gift Shop and Zoo Pride, the Zoological Society’s volunteer group, also were established during this decade of expansion.

Today, the Milwaukee County Zoo is one of the top zoos in the country.  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; currently engaged in several significant breeding programs, including the endangered Humboldt penguin.

The Zoo also is home to one of the largest zoo-born 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 conservation 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 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 2002, the Zoo unveiled a renovated Macaque Island outdoor exhibit for the 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.

The year 2003 marked the start of the Feline Building renovation.  The $7.2 million project provided larger and more realistic exhibit spaces for these magnificent animals, enhancing their quality of life.  The new Florence Mila Borchert Big Cat Country was unveiled to anxious visitors in 2005, and showcased new residents like 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 the animal collection.

Features of the Animal Health Center 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.  The spacious 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 are able to get up close with native wildlife and farm animals, as educational presentations are offered daily in the Stackner Animal Encounter Building.  A new state-of-the-art playground opened in 2015, in addition to the Kohl’s Wild Theater venue.

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.  In 2016, we welcomed a new species to the flock, as eight Chilean flamingos joined the collection and coexist with the resident group.

Also in 2008, the Zoo unveiled a new front entrance mall – the U.S. Bank Gathering Place.  This attractive area features a spacious, light-filled atrium with a renovated Flamingo Café, a counter-style snack bar, coffee shop, 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, initiated 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 able to explore 500 feet of elevated mesh passageways displayed in the forest.  The area 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 permanent activity (operational in the spring, summer and fall) features a 500-foot zip line and two ropes courses, one for children and one for adults.

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.

In May 2017, the Zoo embarked on a new public-private concessions partnership with Service Systems Associates (SSA).  The Zoo now provides concessions, merchandising and catering services with SSA, the premiere service-provider for public and private cultural attractions for more than 40 years. As part of the new partnership, SSA provides $3 million for capital investments, including major renovations and upgrades to the Zoo’s existing restaurants and gift shops.

In July 2018, the Zoo and SSA unveiled new dining options for visitors. The Bear Garden, an ode to Wisconsin’s outdoors, offers an “adult-friendly” menu that includes, draft beers, bottles and cans. The OOZ Food Truck is a cheese-lover’s dream, serving up grilled cheese sandwiches, mac and cheese, and OOZ fries (OOZ cheese sauce, bacon, green onion and sour cream). The Husk Haus pavilion satisfies any beer, bratwurst or corn craving a visitor may have. West End Snacks offers visitors the usual snacks, as well as strawberry and pineapple Dole Whips®, a kosher, gluten-free, and dairy-free soft-serve snack. Visitors can enjoy their snacks while watching the playful otters nearby. In fall of 2018, Nourish 414, formerly known as Lakeview Place, opened to visitors. In addition to serving traditional fare like hamburgers and hot dogs, Nourish 414 offers unique flatbreads, sandwiches and salads.

The summer of 2018 welcomed a fan favorite temporary exhibit to the Zoo --- Dinosaurs! A Jurassic Journey.  The exhibit, sponsored by Sendik’s Food Markets, was presented May 26 through Sept. 3, and featured more than 20 life-size robotic dinosaurs, rousting and rumbling in their outdoor habitat. Visitors encountered some of the most formidable reptiles that roamed the earth through this one-of-a-kind Jurassic journey!

More recent undertakings included the completion of the first planning phase of a new 20-year Zoo Master Plan, which addresses improvements in animal exhibits, visitor attractions and amenities, service facilities and operations.  Additional infrastructure improvements will also occur; the plan serving as a guide for the next 20+ years.

Phase I of the plan includes construction of “Adventure Africa,” an elephant and mixed species exhibit which meets the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) standards for elephant care. The new area features a larger, 1.6-acre outdoor elephant habitat, watering hole and 20-000-square-foot indoor barn. The exhibit will be unveiled in May 2019.

Also part of the plan, the Zoo’s new West Entrance, including admissions and concessions areas, merchandising and adjacent parking lot has been completed, and welcomed visitors in spring of 2018.

“Otter Passage,” a newly constructed North American River Otter Exhibit featuring these popular native animals greet guests upon entering this location. The most abundant of otter species, the colony took up outdoor residence with their gregarious ways and boundless energy.
Adventure Africa will be the largest physical change to the Milwaukee County Zoo since opening at its present location in 1961. The new barn and outdoor area can accommodate up to five elephants, which allows for more social interactions and groupings.

The summer of 2019 will welcome a new experience for Zoo visitors --- Brick Dinos sponsored by Sendik’s Food Markets. The exhibit will be presented May 25 through Sept. 2, and feature masterfully built LEGO® brick dinos. Visitors have the opportunity to become LEGO paleontologists, discovering LEGO recreations of fossils, museum skeletons and interactive play bases.

Opening in spring 2019, the Karibu Gift Shop will serve as the Zoo’s main gift shop. The remodeled shop will feature new floors and ceiling and fixtures with a modern look and rustic elements representing Wisconsin. Karibu Gifts will sell traditional favorites, plus apparel and toys, as well as some local and fair trade global products.

Phase II of Adventure Africa will begin in the fall of 2019. The new Hippo Exhibit will be one of only eight zoos in North America to feature a clear view of hippos underwater! The pool will be environmentally-friendly, saving more than 20 million gallons of water annually. The pool will be 7-feet deep and 3 times larger than the current outdoor watering hole. The new Hippo Habitat is expected to be completed in 2020.

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

For more information, call the Zoo’s Marketing and Communications Department at: 414.256.5466.

January 2019