Madison's Beloved Zoo: A Conversation with Ronda Schwetz, Director of the Henry Vilas Zoo

The Henry Vilas Zoo is a 28-acre free zoo located in Madison, Wisconsin. It is quite popular as it has great community support and boasts almost a million visitors a year. The Zoo has gotten even better with the opening of Arctic Passage, a complex featuring state-of-the-art home for polar and grizzly bears and the zoo’s first full service restaurant. Since 2011, the Henry Vilas Zoo has been directed by Ronda Schwetz. She comes from a background in primate husbandry and has a strong passion for orangutan conservation. Here is her story.

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

Coincidently, Schwetz grew up in Madison having no idea she’d ever work for the zoo here. “I always wanted to be a zoo keeper and grew up going to the zoo,” she recalled. “I studied captive management at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and actually did my first paid internship at the Henry Vilas Zoo. I started by full-time career at the Irvine Park Zoo in Wisconsin. It was not accredited so I had to learn a lot by reading and calling zoo people.” After working at the Irvine Park Zoo in Wisconsin for awhile, Schwetz made a career move by joining the opening staff of Disney’s Animal Kingdom in the late 1990s. “I was in my late 20s and had never been out of Wisconsin so it was a great opportunity,” she added.

@ Disney

Schwetz found being an opening cast member of Animal Kingdom to be a once in a lifetime experience. “It was a really high energy, exciting time,” she remarked. “We were figuring out how it would work. It was this really awesome new theme park doing great things for animals and conservation. I started at the Conservation Center in the park, where I did a stint at the nursery and animal presentations and then became a manager. I still miss it.” However, her house was severely damaged by hurricanes in 2004 pushing her to look for other employment. “I got a bit apprehensive of hurricanes so I took a primate supervisor position at the Denver Zoo,” Schwetz said.

@ Denver Zoo

At the Denver Zoo, she worked in the seven-acre Primate Panorama, home to a wide variety of primates including gorillas, orangutans, lemurs, mandrills, aye-ayes and a wide variety of monkeys. “It was my first time ever working with great apes,” Schwetz explained. “I had worked with small primates my whole career but working with gorillas and orangutans was quite exciting. Denver’s animal care team is top-notch and I got to learn a lot from really talented people. I learned a lot about training and enrichment there- especially for primates. I even got to help hand rear a baby orangutan and, more rewardingly, be part of a team that worked to get her back to her mother.”

@ Denver Zoo

Challenging and stimulating the primates was no easy task for Ronda Schwetz and her coworkers. “It was a lot of physical work- we turned these huge plastic barrels into swings and turned fire hoses into ropes,” she explained. “Primates are so smart and you have to always change things. We built such a deep relationship with these animals. When you come in and work with great apes, they look forward to seeing you every day. Robin the orangutan was very focused on the keepers. One time I went on vacation and when I came back he wouldn’t come anywhere near me because he was upset I had gone away.”

@ Denver Zoo

Ronda Schwetz took an opportunity to go back to her hometown zoo when she got hired as Deputy Director at the Henry Vilas Zoo. “When I met the director, I realized we had a lot of philosophies in common,” she explained. “I thought it was going to be a general curator position. However, the director knew he was going to retire and was training me to become director. It was a happy accident in a way.” In 2011, she became director of the Henry Vilas Zoo.

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

It was a time of crossroads at the Zoo. “They had just finished the children’s zoo areas and were planning to build Arctic Passage,” Schwetz recalled. “I was very fortunate to come into a situation where we were fundraising for a new health center. I really enjoyed designing the great health center at the east end of the zoo. Before, we didn’t have anything like that. We just had a small room with a sink. This one is a L-shaped building complete with a hoofstock quarantine area and large carnivore holding area. We also have an education classroom we use for zoo camp where the kids can see into the vet treatment room. They get to see our veterinarian taking care of animals first hand. There’s even a lab in there where we’re doing a lot of orangutan DNA analysis, which is helping us with conservation of orangutans in the wild.”

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

One of the first projects Schwetz accomplished was turning a former chimpanzee habitat into a great space for a family of ring-tailed lemurs. Then she started work on Arctic Passage, the largest project in the Zoo’s history. “Arctic Passage is probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” Schwetz remarked. “It was really fun as we ended up redesigning the plans to make it more sustainable and we added a lot of green features. We put in underground water storage tanks so when we dump the polar bear or seal pool we can put it through a filtration system. This lets us save 98% of our water."

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

Opened in 2015, Arctic Passage replaced a number of outdated spaces for animals including bear grottoes. “Our community is so supportive of this zoo I knew these bears could be part of the legacy of this zoo,” Schwetz stated. Originally only polar bears and harbor seals were going to be part of the next exhibit but the decision was made to add grizzly bears. “We knew that there were nuisance grizzly bears that can’t be reintroduced to the wild and would have to be euthanized so now we have a place to house them,” she added. “The grizzlies roll in the dirt and grass all day long. They love making a disaster out of the grass, climbing on the tree trunks and fishing in the pool. We have a fishing pool where we shoot fish out and they can go catch them.”

@ WDM Architects

The bear habitats provide plenty of opportunities for stimulation and activity. “The polar bears have a big pool for underwater viewing for them to swim in,” Schwetz remarked. “There’s a rock they can dive off of and we throw toys down for them to get. The polar bears have a lot of grass, rock and dirt to frolic in. One of the fun things we did for our polar bears is we built Glacier Grill (the zoo’s first indoor restaurant) next to it. The polar bears go up frequently to our guests at the restaurant’s window looking into the polar bear yard. In the winter, the bears will take a nap in the sand in front of everyone. We have a sleeping den next to the restaurant where they can go to.”

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

Also included in Arctic Passage is a brand new habitat for harbor seals. “We had an older habitat with no underwater viewing so we created a beach where the keepers feed and train them,” Schwetz explained. “You can see them getting behavioral training and see them swimming underwater. In this bigger space, we can breed them when the time is right per the harbor seal SSP and have many more of them on exhibit.”

@ WDM Architects

Arctic Passage was designed to enable state-of-the-art care, husbandry and training for the Zoo’s polar bears. “One main thing we learned from other places was they have a training wall,” Ronda Schwetz remarked. “It’s set up so it can serve as a transfer between the polar bear and grizzly bear yards. Half of it is mesh and the other half is glass. We have built in a little theater style seating area where people can safely be just five feet away from the keepers working with the bears.” These training sessions are highly beneficial to the staff as it allows easier husbandry and enriching to the bears as it keeps them mentally and physically stimulated.

@ WDM Architects

“The bears get trained every single day,” Schwetz added. “The bears are very intelligent. We have a procedure where the bears put their paw out and they let us do voluntary injections. The polar bears run to the training demonstration area when we come out since they love the training so much. We also have a fish drop that’s designed so we can throw in fish and frozen enrichment at any time for them. It’s all about letting them take part in taking care of themselves.”

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

The Henry Vilas Zoo is also a proactive participant in polar bear conservation and research. “We participate in research for the Polar Bear Species Survival Plan (SSP),” elaborated Schwetz. “We’ve done hormone studies on the polar bears. Recently, we became the first zoo in the nation, working with the Cincinnati Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW), to artificially inseminate a polar bear with live sperm that hadn’t been frozen and thawed out.” Additionally, all of Arctic Passage helps educates guests and empowers them to be proactive conservation. “We provide actions steps visitors can take to help climate change,” Schwetz said. “Little, easy actions people can take like using less water when brushing their teeth.”

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

Arctic Passage also helped set up breeding situations for two other zoos. “When we first opened we had a brother-sister twin polar bear combination,” Schwetz explained. “At around four years of age they become sexually mature so we sent our male to Buffalo and got a female from Cincinnati. This allows both the Buffalo Zoo and the Cincinnati Zoo to have breeding pairs of polar bears. The polar bear SSP has a very small number of animals to work with and they have to be careful about genetics. It was very important that we helped set up two breeding situations that didn’t exist before. Our two polar bears love each other and play together all the time.”

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

The success of Arctic Passage has lead to increased engagement and attendance at the Zoo. “Last year we broke our attendance record,” Ronda Schwetz commented. Improved guest experience has also been vital to this increase. “We never had an indoor restaurant before Glacier Grill,” she added. “That’s been a game changer for the visitors as they have a place to eat. We’ve also created more covered outdoor seating as well and significantly improved our food, drink, and snack options. I come from Disney so we really put a focus on customer service and friendliness. We even have a training program with our staff so they know to make sure our guests have the best visit they possibly can have.”

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

Recently, the Henry Vilas Zoo became one of very few to have Somali wild asses. “People in the zoo field share their knowledge, which helps us do what’s best for animals,” Ronda Schwetz remarked. “Our deputy director was aware only about 500 Somali wild asses were left in the world and we had an open spot in our hoofstock area. People wanted to get zebras back but we went with asses since they’re so interesting and endangered. We really wanted to tell their story to guests. We may end up breeding them.” Although they come from the arid Horn of Africa, Somali wild asses are actually relatively cold tolerant and can be outside three and a half seasons of the year.

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

The Henry Vilas Zoo also added a Wisconsin Herritage exhibit including badgers and a sandhill crane. “The badgers are very active and visitors see them almost all the time,” she added. “We use the exhibit to talk about Wisconsin as a mining state and it’s history. We also have an imprinted sandhill crane that really likes people. He can’t be released into the wild as he is too friendly with people.” Also, new to the Zoo is Herman the white rhinoceros. “We had two rhinos who were here since the 1970s,” Schwetz stated. “Both of them passed in their 40s so we sent our Malayan tapir to a breeding facility and expanded the rhino’s outdoor habitat by 40%. We’re now upgrading the indoor space. Harman the male rhino has been here for about a month and uses his mud wallow everyday. When the time comes, we’ll get him a companion.”

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

As a municipal zoo with free admission, Ronda Schwetz and the Henry Vilas Zoo have to look for ways to earn revenue. “We’re a county run zoo on city land,” she explained. “We’re all county employees and they give us a budget to work with. We’re one of only around ten free zoos in the nation and don’t charge for parking. We really rely on guests spending money at the zoo- buying a soda, getting on the train. The zoo society, Friends of the Henry Vilas Zoo, is part of our successful team and runs all of our concessions, which helps us do what we do. This support allows us to elevate animal welfare and the guest experience.”

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

Ronda credits much of the Henry Vilas Zoo’s success to the people who work there. “We have a very dedicated staff,” she praised. “We have fourteen keepers who are really committed to making sure the animals have what they need and have a passion to make things happen. The relationships our keepers have with out animals are very deep- they always notice when something is unusual. Between the Friends of the Zoo and the county, we really see ourselves as one team. When we had a baby orangutan born in 2015, I took some shifts caring for her. All of our management is really hands on.”

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

“Animal welfare is our highest priority,” Schwetz elaborated. “We make sure we have a good process for our animals in place. We have an animal welfare committee that people can talk to about concerns they might have. We have fantastic veterinarians too. Our staff has a lot of experience with animals and are very open to sharing that knowledge with newer keepers.” The Zoo’s commitment to animal welfare is well demonstrated in its handling of its lion cubs. “We just had lion cubs born to first time parents,” Schwetz stated. “We would let the mom tell us how comfortable she was with the cubs on exhibit. If she didn’t feel comfortable, she could take them back to the den. Even if you couldn’t see the lion cubs, we were letting the mom make the decision. We’re always making the best choices for our animals.”

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

Ronda Schwetz has carried her passion for orangutans over to the Henry Vilas Zoo and has made the Zoo a leader in saving hem in the wild. “The biggest conservation program we do is the orangutan field conservation program, which I started at the Denver Zoo and took over here,” she said. “Basically, we take orangutan keepers from a variety of AZA institutions, go over to Borneo and partner up with orangutan rehabilitation facilities and Asian zoos. We bring over donated supplies and enrichment that these facilities might not have the resources to get on their own. We also do workshops to show their staff how to care for the orangutans. I’m the field adviser for it and we have built a strong relationship with the folks in Borneo. I made sure it continued and transferred to the orangutan SSP after I left Denver.”

@ Ronda Schwetz

“We also work with Dr. Graham L. Banes, who does orangutan DNA analysis,” she continued. “He has samples from every zoo in America to have orangutans as well as many from international zoos. We’re working on helping analyze tis DNA so we know exactly where each orangutan came from. This information could be applied to orangutans in rehabilitation centers in the future to help make sure the animals can be put back in the right geographic area when the time comes.” Orangutans are not the only animals the Henry Vilas Zoo is working to help save. “Our keepers are really passionate about conservation,” Schwetz remarked. “We give money to the tiger SSP for conservation efforts, which we raise from Caturday. It’s a Saturday our keepers organize where we celebrate all things cats and talk about cat conservation. We also participate heavily in Polar Bear International and are Arctic Ambassadors.”

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

No one takes as much pride in the Henry Vilas Zoo as Ronda Schwetz. “I’ve worked at four institutions and I’ve never seen a zoo more beloved by the community,” she reflected. “WE are so, so fortunate to have the community we have. They’re always there for us. We’re lucky to have such enthusiastic support. As a free you, anyone can come here and see a polar bear, tiger or giraffe. I connected with animals because of this zoo and I hope we continue that.”

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

“The most challenge part of being a zoo director is making sure we always have the resources we need to do the best we can,” Schwetz concluded. “My job is to make sure we’re telling people enough of our mission and passion that we’re inviting them to be part of what we do. It’s also so rewarding when you talk to someone who hasn’t’ been to the Zoo, bring them in and talk about what we’re doing here. It’s all about connecting to these animals and making people willing to change their behavior to ensure there will continue to be animals in the wild.”

@ Henry Vilas Zoo

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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© 2017 by Grayson Ponti