MILWAUKEE — After 31 years as Milwaukee County Zoo, director Chuck Wikenhauser is waking up Friday morning as a retired man.
We caught up with him last week in the aviary at the zoo, tossing fish to Inka Terns. The South American birds are best known for their white feathers that look similar to a dazzling mustache.
“Are you going to miss this?” asked TMJ4 News’ Julia Fello. He replied, “Oh, I’m going to miss this a lot, yes.”
He took the helm as director of the Milwaukee County Zoo in 1990.
The aviary building we interviewed him, was one of his first big projects at the Milwaukee County Zoo, adding he studied how to, “Mix the right species of birds and the right personalities together.”
He helped create, an incredibly immersive experience for visitors.
Wikenhauser’s favorite animals are black and white birds, like the penguin, “You just have to spend some time with penguins to know who is who and what personality they have."
He shares the long evolution of making the exhibits a happy environment for the animals.
“When we first opened the zoo in the early 60’s the theory was primate exhibits need to be made as sterile as possible," said Wikenhauser.
By traveling the world, the zoologist learned what the magnificent wild animals needed to thrive.
“I’ve been to Africa about 17 times. Get to watch elephants in the wild, see cheetahs," explained Wikenhauser.
“Did that help you take and build the sanctuaries for these animals?” asked TMJ4 News’ Julia Fello.
He replied, “Yes. ‘Hippo Haven’ for instance — the authenticity of the artificial rock work and symmetry makes it as if you're at the riverside. You’ve got the windows and the water right in front of you with a hippo in it. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
One of the toughest times came last year when the zoo completely shut down for three months during the pandemic.
Not only was he concerned about his staff contracting COVID-19, but the animals as well, “COVID-19 passing to a lion, or a tiger, or a snow leopard, or even gorillas. That is something from the beginning we did not want to happen.”
Wikenhauser says none of the animals at the Milwaukee County Zoo contracted COVID-19.
Hear how he credits his skilled staff for this success:
Wikenhauser says he will miss observing, the visitors, “As soon as people come in from the gathering place they see the penguin exhibit. They just boom! [Go] right up to that. They see the animals and are excited… that’s what makes my day a good day.”
While leaving is bittersweet, he takes with him some unforgettable memories on the job:
The legacy he leaves behind will continue to teach our community’s next generation about the great world we all live in, “We have to work on conservation we have to make sure habitats remain.”
One thing the now-former zoo director is still looking forward to, is completing the $10 million Rhino exhibit by 2023.
Right now, the Milwaukee County Zoo is allowing 6,000 visitors at any time. Indoor exhibits have a 25-percent maximum capacity, with one-way direction walking paths, to ensure everyone is safe. Click here to learn the most updated hours and guidelines.