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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 3,300 mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles with more than 374 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 374 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 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 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 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 provided 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.  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 existing walk-through butterfly garden and the newly-shaded 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 welcome a new species to join our flock, as eight Chilean flamingos were added to 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, 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 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 Miller Coors, also was completed, and emphasized the importance of water conservation.

In the summer of 2017, we are proud and excited to be the first zoo in the country to host the exhibit, “BODY WORLDS:  ANIMAL INSIDE OUT,” sponsored by Sendik’s Food Markets.  The exhibit will be presented May 6 through Sept. 4 and showcase more than 100 spectacular specimens. From goats to giraffes, to bulls and birds, and octopuses to ostriches, the form and function of animals both exotic and familiar is revealed.  From BODY WORLDS creator, Dr. Gunther von Hagens, this blockbuster exhibit displays species painstakingly preserved by the remarkable process of Plastination, invented by Dr. von Hagens. Don’t miss this fascinating experience – to get under the skin of nature’s incredible creatures. (Thanks to donations from zoos and other institutions, no animal was killed or harmed for this exhibition.)

Recent Zoo undertakings include the completion of the first planning phase of a new 20-year Zoo Master Plan, which will address improvements in animal exhibits, visitor attractions and amenities, service facilities and operations.  Major upgrades also are slated for dining, merchandise sales, and additional service and infrastructure improvements.  The plan serves as a guide for the Zoo for the next 20 years and beyond.

Phase I of the plan includes a future elephant and mixed species exhibit which meets the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) standards for elephant care.  The exhibit will be complete by June 2018.

Also part of the plan, the design phase for the Zoo’s new West entrance and adjacent parking lot recently was completed, and in 2017 this area will be functional and welcoming visitors.

It’s clear that the Milwaukee County Zoo is, and will continue to be, one of Wisconsin’s premier 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 Marketing and Communications Department: 414.256.5466.