Educate, Entertain and Inspire: A Conversation with Chuck Wikenhauser, Director of the Milwaukee Cou

The Milwaukee County Zoo came on the map in the early 1960s with its groundbreaking predator-prey exhibits where carnivores and hoofed animals were put in close proximity, separated by moats. Since that time, the zoo has maintained one of the largest varieties of animals in the nation and one of the highest attendance levels for the size of its metropolitan area. For the past nearly 28 years, Chuck Wikenhauser has been director of the zoo, where he came after serving in the director’s career at the Pittsburgh, John Ball and Peoria Zoos. Wikenhauser has helped the zoo modernize exhibits, develop state-of-the-art husbandry programs and become a larger player in conservation. Here is his story.

@ Chuck Wikenhauser

Chuck Wikenhauser’s career in zoos began as a keeper at the Niabi Zoo in Illinois in early 1973 but later that year he became director of the Peoria Zoo. He took it upon himself to make the zoo better. “The previous director was a circus-oriented guy with petting zoos at the fair,” Wikenhauser remembered. “They had a lot of single specimens inappropriate for the size of their exhibits. There wasn’t necessarily a real professional zoological approach. When I came in, we changed that significantly. We renovated exhibits to become more educational and worked to make the animal collection a meaningful group rather than a postage stamp size college. They had a row of cell-like exhibits with single primates or animals just not appropriate for that kind of exhibit, like chimpanzees. We placed those larger primates in better situations in other zoos. I created the education program and we got the zoo accredited for the first time.”

@ Peoria Zoo

After eight years at Peoria Zoo, Wikenhauser moved to the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “[The former director] had no interest in getting the zoo accredited [although] the zoo and society thought that was an important thing to accomplish,” he remarked. “One of my goals was to come in with a solid approach of how we could get accredited by AZA. I professionalized the staff and made sure we were covered with everything from veterinary care and getting a good vet to making sure we had proper animal management. “We were able to achieve accreditation in two years.” A number of exhibits were changed as well. “They had a lot of older chain-link exhibits on a hill [so] we tore those out and replaced them with modern exhibits, which were larger and fewer in nature," Wikenhauser recalled. "We developed a zoo geographic exhibit with South American animals like maned wolves, alpacas, tapirs and spider monkeys.”

@ John Ball Zoo

@ John Ball Zoo

In 1986, Chuck Wikenhauser became Director of the Pittsburgh Zoo, a zoo which was just underway with major renovations. “The issue with the Pittsburgh Zoo is it used to be two zoos- one run by the city, the other by the zoological society,” he explained. “The mayor before me said they’d run it all as one zoo and the zoo stepped up with funds for renovations.” The zoo focused on professionalizing the staff and medical care and increasing education programs. “When I look back at it, it was a very logical approach to everything,” Wikenhauser remarked. “The zoo [before I worked there] had some controversy and neglect but we were able to get the community behind it. It was a real renaissance the community was anxious for.”

@ Pittsburgh Zoo

@ Pittsburgh Zoo

Much of the zoo was reimagined during Wikenhauser’s time at the zoo. “Pittsburgh certainly had a good master plan by Jones and Jones,” he said. “We were able to build the African Savanna with the elephants and giraffes and make it an immersive exhibit." The African Savanna, opened in 1987, featured hidden moats and brought visitors into the environment with the animals. “The exhibits had heavy landscaping in the visitor area,” Wikenhauser elaborated. “It wasn’t linear- you moved back and forth in tall grasses and other landscaping that may be typical of the African Savanna. It reminded me of the Masai Mara. We did the combination of animals and the full sized water hole elephants could walk into. We had a teacher one time that had a group of young students who complained you can’t see the animals, you’ve got all this stuff in the way. Afterwards she sent us a package in the mail of drawings her students had drawn of all the animals and she apologized since they saw and drew everything.”

@ Pittsburgh Zoo

@ Jon Coe

Next, Chuck Wikenhauser and his team did the Tropical Forest, dedicated to primate species from all around the world. “ We created a primate facility that really put [the zoo] on the map,” he recalled. “We brought some gorillas in from a game farm in Alberta, Canada to start our gorilla collection and built a holding facility for them until we were able to build the large primate building. I remember going into the mayor’s office asking for the money and talking about how it would look and how it would explain primate conservation.” Wikenhasuer noted many primates have been born in that facility.

@ Pittsburgh Zoo

@ Pittsburgh Zoo

While Wikenhauser had no intention of leaving the Pittsburgh Zoo, he soon found another opportunity in front of him. “I was fine in Pittsburgh but we had relatives in Milwaukee,” he remembered. “Back in those days, the AZA newsletter advertised available positions and they were looking for a new director at the Milwaukee County Zoo. I saw it and then about a month later they advertised it again. My wife said, unless they call and ask you, don’t apply. Not long after, Milwaukee County Zoo HR department called and asked if I would apply for the position.” In 1990, Chuck Wikenhauser became Director of the Milwaukee County Zoo, a position he has held ever since.

@ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

Not only was Chuck Wikenhauser attracted to the Milwaukee County Zoo because of proximity to family but also its size and potential. “Milwaukee was a larger institution and one I was familiar with growing up,” he elaborated. “It was a great zoo and had so much potential. It’s so well respected here in the community and so well supported- such an amazing relationship.” The Milwaukee County Zoo has long received stellar attendance and is home to a one of the widest varieties of animals of any zoo in the nation.

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

In the early 1990s, the Milwaukee County Zoo was developing Apes of Africa, a new ape facility that would feature the largest troop of bonobos in human care. “We had just acquired bonobos and had a really substandard primate building,” Wikenhauser remarked. “If we were going to manage great apes in human care, we needed to really improve those facilities. My first priority [was to] get a facility built where we could house those apes properly.” Opened in 1992, Apes of Africa featured both gorillas and bonobos. In the same capital campaign, the zoo renovated the Aviary, Primates of the World and the Aquarium and Reptile Center.

Olga Kornienko @ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

The Milwaukee County Zoo has long been known for its innovation in bonobo husbandry. “We have the largest population of bonobos managed in human care,” Chuck Wikenhauser stated. “Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes that’s a bad thing depending on how everyone gets along. The new facilities let the keepers do husbandry training and medical care to allow the bonobos [to] accept an ultrasound. We’d have cuffs they could get their arms ino and accept hand injections. We could also do oral exams. All that operant conditioning training was going on and that really helped.”

Mark Scheuber @ Milwaukee County Zoo

“We’ve also been involved in the Great Ape Heart Project with gorillas and bonobos,” Wikenhauser continued. “We work with hypertension and help save their lives. We’ve taken problem bonobos who had been single specimens and were physically just not healthy or emotionally fragile and successfully integrated them into our population here. We’ve got psychiatrists, neonatal specialists and hand surgeons [who work with our apes.] Just a whole group of specialists that have helped us become one of the premier institutions for bonobos.” While the bonobo troop is large, the Milwaukee County Zoo’s gorilla population is smaller with a small bachelor group and a family group of two females, a male and a youngster.

Bill James @ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

Unfortunately, the expense of Apes of Africa limited the extent of how much could be done in constructing the renovation of Primates of the World, the zoo’s original primate building. The staff had to be economical and resourceful to improve animal welfare without too much fabrication. “What used to be the exhibit areas were converted to become holding facilities and we built larger exhibits out in front,” Wikenhauser said. “We will eventually remodel the orangutan and colobus habitats since we weren’t able to do as much with them as we wanted to.”

Olga Kornienko @ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

Olga Kornienko @ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

One of Chuck Wikenhauser’s favorite exhibits at the zoo is the Aviary, one of the first renovations he worked on. “The Aviary had to be almost totally gutted because they discovered avian tuberculosis among the birds,” he explained. “The plan was to come back in with immersive habitats. We used piano wire at the front and the only remaining things [from the old Aviary] was some rockwork in the free flight Aviary and the penguin exhibit. [Now] it’s a great winding path through there and one of my favorite buildings [at the zoo.]”

Richard Brodzeller @ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

Richard Brodzeller @ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

The capital campaign was completed with the opening of the renovated Aquarium and Reptile Center in 1995. In particular, the zoo added to the aquatic component of the building. “We concentrated a little more on endangered species and added some marine saltwater exhibits,” Wikenhauser stated. “The large aquariums we used to have had antiquated glass with small viewing portals so we enlarged those to create an immersive experience. We have an Amazon exhibit with large pacu and a variety of fish where the kids can go up and lean right on it.”

@ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

@ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

The Milwaukee County Zoo is one of the nation’s largest zoos operated by a government agency. “Government has a number of rules that have to be followed [in terms of] construction projects and purchasing,” Chuck Wikenhauser explained. “There’s always a political aspect to a government operation. You have to be patient- there’s no doubt about that. You have to make sure whoever is in charge fully understands what the zoo is and gives the support you need. We’re a quality of life facility so we have to compete with other agencies that may have been mandated for the government to cover.”

Joel Miller @ Milwaukee County Zoo

During the second capital campaign during Wikenhauser’s career, the Milwaukee County Zoo opened a major education center perfectly suited for the zoo’s education programs. In fact, the Zoological Society of Milwaukee runs one of the largest education programs at any zoo in the nation. “The old education center had three classrooms and that was it,” Wikenhauser remarked. “We had to bring in trailer classrooms in the summer, which were never ideal. In the second capital campaign, we built the new education facility with eight classrooms and a discovery lab. I’ve done a lot of inspections and it’s one of the best buildings for education I’ve seen. If it was put somewhere else, it would be a school. With that, you could expand the staff and variety of programs.”

Bob Wickland @ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

The second capital campaign also included an animal health center, an island for macaques, a flamingo exhibit, a giraffe feeding deck, Big Cat Country (new holding areas for the zoo’s felines) and a large gathering space. “With Big Cat Country we took out the [indoor] exhibit space, reused it as holding space and made much larger indoor habitats,” Wikenhauser noted. “We were hindered by the fact it’s surrounded by the predator-prey exhibits with gunite but we built exhibits that gave more intimate experiences in which you can come right up to the glass and the cats come up. We’ve raised lion, tiger and snow leopard cubs there.”

Richard Brodzeller @ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

Richard Brodzeller @ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

Particularly important was the zoo’s new animal health center, a testament to the exceptional veterinary care the zoo provides. “The animal health center we built is phenomenal and state of the art with all the things you need,” Chuck Wikenhauser said. “We have a residency program with the University of Wisconsin vet school and have three resident vet students who work with our vets. We have great programs for professional development that whether it’s a keeper or curator, they give them opportunities for continual development and learning. That’s all geared toward making the best animal welfare.”

@ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

One of the biggest developments at the Milwaukee County Zoo over the past two and a half decades has been a significant increase in the zoo’s conservation efforts. “If you’re going to be dealing with endangered species, you have to prove you’re active in their conservation in their indigenous countries,” Chuck Wikenhauser claimed. “That was something we really needed to focus on. We have the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, which has been going on for twenty years. We recently received the AZA Special Achievement Award for Conservation [for it.] We’ve also got the staff involved in other countries. We’ve sent people to Chile to work with Humboldt penguins, to Aruba to work with iguanas and to Grenada to work with frogs and snakes. We’ve making sure we’re as involved as we can.”

@ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

“There’s an informal goal in AZA that you should invest 3% of your operating budget in conservation,” Wikenhauser stated. “We are just about there whether we’re actually doing [the project] or supporting [the project.] That’s been a strong part of what our staff has wanted to accomplish and we’ve given them the funds to do that. We have AAZK (American Association of Zookeepers) in Milwaukee and we’ve got revenue sources where, if they’re going to raise money for a project, we’ll match it and double the impact. We encourage our keepers and animal staff to support them.”

Richard Brodzeller @ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

Chuck Wikenhauser has long been the lead of many accreditation inspections for the AZA. “AZA accreditation is the gold standard in zoos and aquariums,” he elaborated. “It’s something that began in 1975 and has just continually raised the bar as far as standards with animal welfare, conservation and education. I served on the accreditation commission in the 80s and 90s and I'm now serving on it again. I just finished as chair of the accreditation commission for two years. [In an AZA inspection,] they look at everything. It’s something I’ve done at least forty times myself. [AZA accreditation] is seen as a pre-qualifer when you’re applying for permits from the federal government and grants from many foundations.” Wikenhauser noted only 230 zoos and aquariums are accredited by the AZA compared with 2000 facilities licensed by the USDA.

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

Recently, the Milwaukee County Zoo launched work on an ambitious master plan that will transform much of the zoo. While a new entrance with a river otter habitat is opening next spring, the first major project will be Adventure Africa, which will be done in three phases. “Adventure Africa really moved up the list because of the changing standards in maintaining elephants,” Chuck Wikenhauser remarked. “In the first phase, we’re building a new elephant habitat as well as two mixed species exhibits- one with zebras and impala, another with bongos and duikers. That will be finished next fall and we’ll move animals in then but it will open to the public in 2019.”

@ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

Richard Brodzeller @ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

To make space for elephants, moose, wolves and the zoo’s Australian collection had to be phased out. “We couldn’t replace the elephant exhibit where it is now as it’s too small,” Wikenhauser commented. “We had to look at what land we had available.” However, the zoo’s African elephants will be able to receive much greater welfare, space, choice and control. "The amount of open outdoor space the elephants have will greatly increase,” Wikenhauser said. “The indoor building itself will have a huge day room with sand on the floor and plenty of skylights. It’s going to have a huge water hole that will let the elephants totally submerge underwater. Guests will be able to see the elephants get trained and how well we care for them- it’ll have a more formal demonstration area than we have now.”

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

@ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

“The second phase of Adventure Africa will be the hippo habitat, which will have underwater viewing,” Wikenhauser continued. “That was the one thing we didn’t get done in the last capital campaign. Then the third phase will be where we take where the elephants are now and expand it for rhinos. After Adventure Africa, we’ll do Alaska’s Cold Coast, a renovation of all of North America.”

Richard Brodzeller @ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

@ Milwaukee County Zoo

“Zoos have to stay relevant and make sure they are important to people,” Chuck Wikenhauser reflected. “They do that by providing an animal population with great welfare and staying involved in education and conservation issues so the community knows we’re working for wild animals. We need to continue a strong accreditation program and have strong standards assuring the best possible care for the animals and everything that goes along with that. That’s where zoos are going in the future. Zoos are not just animals- they’re an entire experience. Some of our most popular attractions here are our playground, zip line and sky ride. They don’t detract from the animal experience but give people another reason to come. It gives us a way to expand our ability to earn revenue.”

Richard Brodzeller @ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

Bob Wickland @ Zoological Society of Milwaukee

“I think every zoo I’ve been at I’ve left a better place whether in programming, animal care, physical facilities or professional recognition,” Chuck Wikenhauser concluded. “That’s my legacy.”

@ Chuck Wikenhauser

#MilwaukeeCountyZoo #PittsburghZoo #PeoriaZoo #JohnBallZoo

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