New to the Milwaukee County Zoo – a gargantuan exhibit sized to suit its largest residents

Brittany walks inside first. She’s small, not even 8,000 pounds, but nimble. Ruth, who weighs in at over 10,000 pounds, wanders in next.

They head straight for their trainers, who are waiting with snacks in hand. Brittany reaches them first and lifts her left leg up, making it clear that she wants to work. For the next few minutes, she’s led through a series of exercises. Each time she completes one, she waggles her trunk expectantly, and her trainer hands her slivers of fruit or pieces of carrot.

All of this is happening in their new 20,000-square-foot indoor training facility, more than eight times the size of their old indoor home. They also have access to a 1.6-acre outdoor habitat modeled on a real African savannah. Nearby, zebra, bongos, impalas and antelope graze in two mixed-species habitats.

Ruth (left) and Brittany aren’t related, but they’re both 37 years old; Brittany is smaller, but more dominant. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Zoo.

Adventure Africa, which opens to the public on May 4, has transformed 25 percent of the Milwaukee County Zoo’s existing footprint. The renovation project – the largest in the zoo’s 127-year-history – began about six years ago.

Zoo officials knew their elephants would be happier in a larger herd, but that they’d need to update their existing facilities before they could house any more animals. They also knew that elephants have long been the zoo’s biggest draw, literally and figuratively. “We conducted focus groups, and elephants topped the list of what people wanted to see,” says Zoo Director Charles Wikenhauser.

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So they took action. In 2011, they sent employees on reconnaissance missions to five zoos around the country and hired two architectural firms to collaborate on a design soon after. In 2016, they brought in the demolition crews. And late last year, they were finally ready to show Brittany and Ruth their new home.

“They couldn’t just walk across the street to their new facility,” explains Wikenhauser, who began his career as an elephant keeper in 1973. “So we hired a professional animal mover.” Zoo keepers spent months training the elephants to let them loop ropes around their legs and guide them into an enormous crate that the mover pushed against a wall of their old habitat. Once they stepped inside, the mover used a crane to hoist the crate and its nine-ton cargo onto a flatbed semi-trailer. He then drove the semi over to the new exhibit and used a second crane to slowly lower the elephants to the ground again.

Two architectural firms – Hammel, Green and Abrahamson and PJA Architects & Landscape collaborated on the Adventure Africa design. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Zoo.

The task, like Adventure Africa as a whole, was a massive undertaking. But zoo officials never doubted that it was worth it. “It was time for us to give the girls what they deserve,” says Jodi Gibson, CEO of the Zoological Society of Milwaukee.

The exhibit represents the first phase of a multi-year, $40 million plan to transform the zoo. “To date we’ve raised about $18 million,” says Gibson, “so we’re well on our way.” And she expects to see a surge of public interest when Adventure Africa officially opens this month.

In the meantime, Gibson, Wikenhauser and their colleagues have already begun thinking about the next phases of the project – hippo and rhino exhibits, and then Alaska’s Cold Coast, which will provide new homes for polar bears, sea lions, grizzly bears and caribou. And they’re busily looking for roommates for Brittany and Ruth, too.

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“Trunk Show” appears in the May 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning April 29, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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