A Conversation with Beth Rich, Deputy Director of Animal Care and Health at the Milwaukee County Zoo

In the upcoming years, the Milwaukee County Zoo will be going through its largest renovation in decades with several modern exhibits opening. In 2019, the zoo will open Adventure Africa, featuring a state-of-the-art habitat for African elephants. After that, black rhinos, river hippos, polar and grizzly bears, seals and sea lions, orangutans and many others will be getting new digs as well. A huge player in this modernization is Beth Rich, Deputy Director of Animal Care and Health at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Here is her story.

@ Beth Rich

Prior to coming to the Milwaukee County Zoo in 2014, Rich was the director of the Tautphaus Park Zoo in Idaho Falls. While a much smaller institution, she did everything she could to make it better. “There was a wonderful family feeling at that zoo,” Rich stated. “My big goal there was to create a more stable funding platform. I worked closely with them on getting an endowment set up. I also wanted to make sure we had good infrastructure. We replaced a lot of asphalt and made sure what we had was the best it could be. When we were short, I would clean bathrooms, do keeping and trim bushes. I got to understand the entire zoo operation.” However, after some time there, she was ready to move to a bigger zoo. “Going from a small zoo to a large zoo was a natural step,” Rich remarked. “I was ready for the next step in my career."

@ Idaho Falls Zoo

Beth Rich has put a lot of effort into being the boss she would have liked when she was a keeper. “I thought as a zookeeper what would I need from my boss,” she elaborated. “That’s what I strove to be- the boss that I know zoo staff are looking for. They want someone who communicates and lets them know what’s going on. Someone who is connected to the staff, finds out how they’re doing and how to make their job better. What can we work on to make it easier for you to do your job and improve the welfare of the animals? What can I do to help you achieve that?”

Bob Wickland @ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

When Rich came to the zoo, it was in a state of transition. Not only was it going to begin developing major exhibits for the first time in over two decades but there was also turnover among the senior staff “We had two senior animal leaders leave and soon after that the curator of primates retired so I needed to hire those positions very quickly,” Rich recalled. “We had a leadership gap while we hired these positions so we got people trained up and got them comfortable in these roles. We had a change in the way we wanted to include area supervisors in things. When we would hire zookeepers, I wanted to include area supervisors in the interview process. They’re going to be in charge of these people so they should be sitting in with them. We wanted to find ways to grow our staff professionally. We really recognize who are our strong leaders and what we can do to develop them.”

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

“The other big change is we’re building our elephant exhibit,” Beth Rich continued. “As our development officer says this is 25% of the zoo’s footprint. We’ve been having to manage expectations and reality.” The elephant facility is only the first major step in an ambitious master plan for the zoo. “In 2013, the Milwaukee County Zoo went through a master planning process and realized we really needed to update our zoo,” Rich noted. “We have outdated facilities. Our keepers do a fantastic job of working within those restraints but the reality is these facilities were largely built in the 50s and 60s. We didn’t meet elephant standards so, if we wanted to keep elephants, we had to build a new elephant habitat. We’ve got people supportive of us moving forward with financial contributions and a climate within the city that’s supportive of the zoo. When we embarked on the strategic plan, the development said we need to study if the area is ready for a capital campaign. We hired a consultant who said 'Yes they’re ready.'”

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

The new elephant exhibit will be a gargantuan improvement over their quarters now. “The new elephant barn will be nine times the indoor space they have now while the outdoor habitat will be five times the space [they have now],” Rich explained. “The barn will have a big open dayroom where all the elephants can be in together. The stalls will be soft substrate as we want to cut out as much concrete as possible. Outside they’ll have a big pool and lots of enrichments. We’re building in a formalized demonstration yard where the public can sit, watch a training session, ask questions and really connect with the elephants. It’ll be designed for lots of variability and variation.”

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

“We’ll be able to do better and more detailed husbandry procedures in a modern setting,” Beth Rich continued. “We’ll be able to hang up a larger quantity and variety of enrichment. We want the variability and flexibility. ”During the winter, visitors look into the elephant indoor quarters from the outside while in the new space they will be inside while seeing the elephants during the winter. “It’s going to be a large, tall building with a multipurpose room upstairs and a small catering kitchen,” Rich remarked. While the new facility will be elaborate, it won’t have a breeding herd but rather surplus elephants. “I don’t want to breed up here,” Beth Rich explained. “When you breed, you need a lot of elephant keepers. The county is not ready to fund us that way for staffing. Other zoos are doing a great job with breeding so we are totally content to hold and manage geriatric and surplus elephants.”

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

Additionally, the area will include a mixed species hoofstock yard that will eventually be able to connect to the African elephant habitat. While the zoo needs to talk to the Ungulate Tag to see what the priority species should be, it will include species such as zebras, impalas and crowned cranes. The former Australian yard will become a habitat for bongo and yellow-backed duiker. As of now, the elephants will be moving into their new facility in fall 2018 and the area will officially be opening in spring 2019.

Richard Broadzeller @ ZSM

In the meantime, the elephant care staff has been making the most of the space they have now. “The elephants receive a minimum of three training sessions a day with the keepers,” Beth Rich said. “The keepers also reset the habitat a couple times a day putting up toys, moving furniture, putting out food and hanging things up. They’re all about creating an ever-changing environment for the animals and encouraging natural behaviors. We put sand piles in the barn where the elephants can lay down and play.”

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

After the new elephant exhibit, a modern hippopotamus exhibit will open. “We’re planning on having underwater viewing, which is great,” Rich added. "It will also significantly increase the quantity and quality of space the hippos will receive." Additionally, the empty elephant habitat will be connected with the current black rhinoceros habitat to create a much larger space for rhinos. “The rhinos should have about triple the indoor space they have and we’ll give them soft substrate and nice big rooms,” Rich elaborated. “The public will be able to see them inside in the winter.”

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

Also in the zoo’s future is Alaska’s Cold Coast, a region featuring polar bears, grizzly bears, sea lions, harbor seals, elk and other species. This will replace the current North American area. “It would be a big facelift,” Rich said. The master plan lays out that the wooded area behind the Small Mammal Building will become Wisconsin Wild Woods, home to moose, wolves and mountain lions. “We’re also talking about expanding the aquarium side of the reptile building with tropical fish and sharks,” Rich commented. “Komodo dragons have been bounced around as well. We’ll also update the primate building to make it more modern and redo our orangutan exhibit.”

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

Richard Brodzeller @ ZSM

A major priority for Beth Rich has been letting her staff grow. “We send out keepers to a lot of continuing education,” she stated. “We have keepers who go to workshops and they bring that knowledge back with them to share with their peers. We think about what we can be doing better and how we can raise the paper. We keep ourselves networked in the zoo world and continuing education helps us stay on top of things.”

@ ZSM

Also vital to the zoo’s success is behavioral training. “We do a lot of training,” Beth Rich elaborated. “Our big cats especially get a lot of husbandry training. Our lions will let us do blood draws out of their tails while our tigers and hyenas have been trained for ultrasounds. We have an extensive great ape population and many of them are trained for ultrasounds and blood draws. We’ve done blood pressure training for bonobos. The Reptiles Aquatics Complex keepers have been training our sharks to target feed. Many of our birds are trained to voluntary step on a scale. We also train them to fly into a catch cage so we can keep an eye on them.”

Olga Kornienko @ Milwaukee County Zoo

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

Enrichment is vital to animal welfare at the zoo as well. “Our enrichment program strides to give animals opportunities to engage in natural behaviors,” Beth Rich noted. “It shouldn’t just be toys in an exhibit. You need to tell me what’s the behavior you want to see with that toy. You get keepers to think of it in terms of natural behaviors- feeding, social, self maintenance and hiding behaviors. We can use an enrichment calendar but I want people to think of it as opportunities for behavior diversity.”

@ ZSM

Diversity and complexity of enrichment is especially important with primates. “We have to offer food in ways that encourage natural foraging behaviors,” Rich remarked. “I don’t want them just to eat it out of a bowl- I want them to work for it. for primates, opportunities for smelling new scent and scent marking are very important. What kind of new information can we give them to explore? Primates are so smart we need to do cognitive enrichment that lets them learn and engage.”

Mark Scheuber @ Milwaukee County Zoo

Olga Kornienko @ZSM

For years the Milwaukee County Zoo has been renowned for its large variety of animals. This requires extensive management and care. “We chunk it up in smaller pieces and have curators over small parts,” Rich explained. “They all love the taxa they work with. For instance, we have a large mammal curator who oversees the pachyderms, big cats, hoofstock and bears and a bird curator who oversees the bird collection and family farm. I’m currently hiring an aquarium and reptile curator and another one for primates and small mammals. The curators are responsible for the day-to-day stuff for their taxa. I sit down with each of them once a year to talk about their collection plan. I might think something is a cool species but, since I’m not the one taking care of it, I want my keepers excited. I also need a vet staff who is good at being team players with the curators and keepers and a jack of all trades. They have to work with a shark, a snake, a bird and an elephant.”

Richard Brodzeller @ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

Since being at Milwaukee, Beth Rich has appreciated the resources that come with a larger zoo. “The biggest difference in animal care between a big zoo and a small zoo is availability of resources for very complex veterinary issues,” she commented. “Because we’re larger and have greater financial support, we have digital X-ray equipment and cardiac ultrasound machines- all things you might not be able to have at a small zoo. The thing I always stress is that it’s not the intent isn’t there at a smaller zoo but the resources might not be there. Everyone wants to provide the highest quality of care and zookeepers do that within the restraints placed on them."

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

The Milwaukee County Zoo does not have its own conservation department but is proactively involved in conservation. “We send keepers every year to the Grand Cayman Island for rock iguana conservation,” Rich said. “We also send people to Jamaica for iguana. We’re getting more involved in giraffe conservation and just sent a keeper to Namibia to participate in giraffe research. We also give financial support to a lot of different projects.”

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

Beth Rich is determined to help the Milwaukee County Zoo continue its rich culture of excellent animal husbandry and help it become better with the opening of several new exhibits. "One of the things I'm most proud of is leading a zoo through a successful AZA accreditation inspection," she remarked. "Here in Milwaukee I'm most excited to have the new elephant exhibit completed and see our elephants in brand new living quarters."

@ Milwaukee County 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