How Are the Animals at the Milwaukee County Zoo?

The Milwaukee County Zoo may be closed — but the animals are still home.

It’s not just restaurants and sporting events that are now off-limits as we aim to stop the spread of COVID-19. Admission to Milwaukee County Zoo is also on hold.

Even so, the 190-acre zoo continues to hum with growls, purrs and roars, because this is the animals’ home.

Recently the zoo debuted a series of webcams to remind us, during our lockdown state, of our more, um, wild neighbors. Here’s a rundown of who is modeling on the webcam.

  • “Snow Lilly,” a 35-year-old polar bear, who moved to the zoo in 2005 from the Bronx Zoo and is the oldest polar bear currently being cared for by humans
  • Mother-son jaguar duo “Stella” and “Francisco”
  • 18 Humboldt penguins, who are native to Chile; tune in mid-morning and mid-afternoon for feedings
  • A family of Amur tigers: Amba, 17, with her “kids” Tula and Kash
  • Themba, a 405-pound male African lion who relocated from Madison’s Henry Vilas Zoo in 2003
  • “Patty Sharptooth,” a 5-year-old African lion, with her two two-year-old daughters, “Amira” and
  • “Eloise;” all three moved from Kansas’ Sedgewick County Zoo
  • Two spotted hyenas: “Scruffy,” a 21-year-old male; and “Nyota,” an 11-year-old female
  • Various fish species that are native to Wisconsin and reside in a 55,000-gallon aquarium, including rainbow trout, largemouth bass, northern pike and longnose gar

Although polar bears, flamingos, gorillas, jaguars, hyenas, snakes and more are normally either behind bars or thick glass preventing physical contact with humans their world has been flipped upside down now that they only see their fellow species. How are they coping? The short answer is that it depends on the species.

The most affected are otters. Pre-COVID-19, “we’d often see them ‘following visitors’ as they swam through the water,” says zookeeper Jessica Biggins, who works with otters and small mammals. “We’re making sure to do training with them to keep them occupied, and they’re busy digging up their outdoor yard, which in turn keeps us busy.”

The life of a zookeeper is also now drastically different, as special attention is paid to the animals’ transition. “The animals do as much for us as we do for them, and for that, I am grateful,” says Bridget Carpenter, a zookeeper in the zoo’s Family Farm area. “We have not noticed much difference in our animals as a result of the zoo closure and the public not being present.” One reason? Many are herd animals and already within the comfort of their pack. Once the weather warms up, some will move to their outside exhibits, where they may soon notice the lack of visitors.

“For our webcam postings, we’ve heard things such as, ‘My kids look to see what the animals are doing every day’ and that families check-in on the webcams daily,” says Emily Salentine, the zoo’s marketing and social-media coordinator. “If they haven’t seen one of their favorite animals on the webcam for a while, they email to check that the animal is healthy and doing okay.”

The zoo also publishes videos on its Facebook page. “We hear a lot [from people] about how seeing the animals is helping with their anxiety, how they look forward to the posts and how the videos and photos brighten their day,” says Salentine.

“In general, Small Mammals’ animals don’t seem to miss the visitors, although the fennec fox was startled when I went close to her exhibit, because she’s not accustomed to seeing visitors,” says area supervisor of small mammals, Rhonda Crenshaw.

Considered closer to the human species than any other animal, the zoo’s apes and primates are conflicted about the lack of human visitors. “The spider monkeys seem to miss visitors, as they’re so interactive,” say Ryan Strack, area supervisor of apes and primates. “The orangutans and mandrills seem to be fine without visitors. The mandrills are very chill. Alex, our newest orangutan, seems comfortable without visitors.”

Life over at the dairy-cow barn, however, is a different story. “Our year-old black and white Holstein heifer, Betsy, was very ‘chatty’ for the first week or so of the closure,” says Carpenter. “She is a very friendly animal that we have worked closely with since she was born and she always seemed to enjoy listening to the public talk to her while she was out in the heifer yard.

“But Betsy has moved into the ‘big cow barn’ and is now with her cow herd and has our company all day long.  To add some sensory enrichment for the cows, and keepers, we have been playing – and singing along to music in the barn too,” says Carpenter.

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A seasoned writer, and a former editor at Milwaukee Home & Fine Living, Kristine Hansen launched her wine-writing career in 2003, covering wine tourism, wine and food pairings, wine trends and quirky winemakers. Her wine-related articles have published in Wine Enthusiast, Sommelier Journal, Uncorked (an iPad-only magazine), FoodRepublic.com, CNN.com and Whole Living (a Martha Stewart publication). She's trekked through vineyards and chatted up winemakers in many regions, including Chile, Portugal, California (Napa, Sonoma and Central Coast), Canada, Oregon and France (Bordeaux and Burgundy). While picking out her favorite wine is kind of like asking which child you like best, she will admit to being a fan of Oregon Pinot Noir and even on a sub-zero winter day won't turn down a glass of zippy Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.