Chuck Wikenhauser says the thing he’ll miss most after 31 years as Milwaukee County Zoo director will be the feeling when he gets in his golf cart and drives around in the morning before the gates are open – his time with the animals.
Wikenhauser graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in zoology in 1971, hoping to pursue a career in conservation.
“I thought I would work for the DNR or something like that, but I didn’t find a job. My sister called one day and said, ‘Hey, there’s a zookeeper job open.’” Wikenhauser got a job at the Niabi Zoo in Rock Island County, Illinois, in 1973, and later moved on to become director of the Glen Oak Zoo in Peoria. Director jobs in Grand Rapids and Pittsburgh followed. Wikenhauser was named director of the Milwaukee County Zoo in 1990 and remained until his retirement this April.
During Wikenhauser’s directorship, the zoo launched a $26 million project in the 1990s to create new facilities and renovate old ones. Another $29 million in the early 2000s funded construction of new animal health and education centers. The most recent renovations have included ongoing work in the new Adventure Africa section.
Wikenhauser says his biggest accomplishment as director has been keeping the zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “That’s what I think is most important because it judges your quality of operations.”
At the new Elephant Care Center, completed in 2019, Wikenhauser shares his favorite spot – a deck on the second floor of the building that offers a panoramic view of Adventure Africa. A room adjacent to it is available for functions, and he plans to have his retirement party here after pandemic restrictions ease up. The room features windows that overlook an “elephant rec room,” where he points out Ruth and Brittany, sitting on the floor, munching hay.
“There are a lot of critics of zoos and how we care for elephants. We are not hiding anything – we aren’t abusive to our elephants. We train
them with treats and rewards rather than being forced to do something. For an elephant, this is a great life – free medical care, free food, free housing for the rest of your life.”
Among his favorite charges at the zoo are the elephants and the penguins. “I’ve had many opportunities to observe elephants in the wild,” he says, referring to the 17 safaris he’s led in Africa. “They all have personalities, as do birds – they’re kind of quirky, penguins in particular. I had an opportunity early in my career to collect puffins from Iceland for an exhibit.” Wikenhauser’s most recent adventure was a 2019 safari to Tanzania, where he came face to face with a cheetah. “It was so close, I couldn’t move my camera enough to take a picture.”
He “intends to keep busy” in retirement – he hopes to help with fundraising and will mentor and inspect zoos and aquariums that want to achieve accreditation.
Wikenhauser and his wife also look forward to having time to travel to visit their three daughters, explore Europe and Alaska, and hopefully visit Antarctica “to see penguins in the wild,” something he’s always wanted to do. “Now,” he says, “I have time to do it.”