How New Animals Come to the Zoo

You can’t just walk into any pet store and buy an African elephant. And animal shelters certainly don’t have rare western lowland gorillas available for adoption. So, what does the Milwaukee County Zoo do when it wants to add a new animal to its collection? 

We talk to other zoos, of course. 

Jessica Munson, a zookeeper at the Milwaukee County Zoo, feeds a red kangaroo in February 2008.
Jessica Munson, a zookeeper at the Milwaukee County Zoo, feeds a red kangaroo in February 2008.*

Today, many of our new animals come from other zoos. Through a mutual commitment to conservation, zoos work together to protect the growing number of endangered animal species.  By continuously shifting the animal populations, zoos not only keep their collections fresh and exciting, but they also help to preserve the genetic diversity of each species. They do this through Species Survival Plans (SSPs) coordinated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.*

Some species are so rare that they have only a few animals left in captivity. For example, as of November 2009 there were only 116 Guam kingfisher birds left on the planet, all of which can be found in zoos. When there are so few animals left, zoo officials must work together to find out which animals have the best chance for successfully breeding. This may mean moving one of our adult animals to another zoo where there is a potential mate. Or it could mean that another zoo sends us a couple of young animals in hopes of giving them a good chance at reproducing. 


The Milwaukee County Zoo has exhibited elephants since 1907, when Henry “Heine” Bulder, one of the founding members of the Zoological Society of Milwaukee, personally purchased for the Zoo an elephant named Countess Heine. Here elephants Ruth (foreground) and Brittany play outdoors in the aftermath of a 10-inch snowfall on March 21, 2008. Even though they are warm-climate mammals, African elephants have thick skin that soaks up solar rays, keeping them warm in cold Wisconsin.

However, animals weren’t always brought to our Zoo under such carefully orchestrated means.
From its beginning up through the 1970s or so, the Zoological Society committed to paying for and acquiring animals for the Zoo. As part of the Zoological Society of Milwaukee’s (ZSM’s) centennial celebration, we took a look through some previous ZSM publications to get the details of how a variety of animals came to the Zoo.

The first issue of Animal Talk newsletter (the predecessor of the ZSM’s Alive magazine) was published in 1963. It was written by Walter Kroening, a ZSM Board member. Until August 1980, this newsletter kept Zoological Society members informed on all the latest news, special events, and animal information at the Zoo. 

One of the most interesting features of Animal Talk were the detailed accounts of the negotiations for and the arrival of new Zoo animals. They were written in Kroening’s colorful language. Here are a few examples (we’ve taken excerpts but made some grammatical corrections to the text): 

  • The February 1963 issue of Animal Talk: 
    Animal Talk - February 1963
    This is the cover of the first issue of Animal Talk, a Zoological Society newsletter that was the precursor to Alive magazine.
    “We have a magnificent collection now, thanks to the Zoological Society – six elephants and five rhinos, to mention a few. You may be interested in knowing that the Indian rhino is still thought to be on the decrease. If any permits are granted to take them at all, they cost $12,000 each. West Berlin has had $12,000 in the bank for a female for the past two years – just awaiting word – but word has not come. Add to this the catching costs, insurance, transportation, and the many other incidentals. We paid $14,000 each for ours FOB [free on board] ship in Belgium and London. The best bargain in which we shall ever participate. One shudders at the thought we almost lost the male a few years ago. When they were moved from the Washington Park Zoo last fall [to the new Zoo on Blue Mound Rd.], the male, Rudra, weighed 5,510 pounds, and the female, Mohinija, 4,150 pounds. When the rhinos left Basel [Switzerland] in June of 1959, Rudra weighed 2,800 pounds. He is now a tremendous animal and due to scientific diet could well be the largest Indian rhino in the world.”

  • The January 1973 issue of Animal Talk: 
    “Red Kangaroos Arrive at Last: After two years of effort-- letter writing, form filling, and exercise of international friendship – Zoological Society Board Member Atty. Clifford Randall, past international president of Rotary, while touring Australia, asked his buddy and former Rotary District Governor, Charles Butler, to use his influence to help us get red kangaroos. Mr. Butler of Townsville, Australia, persuaded high government mucketymucks to release three choice red kangaroos for export to Milwaukee. The frosting on the cake of the kangaroo deal is that they are a gift from the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary at Brisbane, which means we got them ‘for nothing.’  The gift consists of a male and two females, about 15 months old, weight about 30 pounds. Mr. Butler said one of the females is suspected of pregnancy which, if true, would be the cherry on top of the frosting on top of the cake. Since the period of gestation is only five to six weeks, we shall soon know whether this is a fact. Although it would be difficult to discover because of the minute size of the offspring.” 

  • The September 1973 issue of Animal Talk
    “It is becoming more and more difficult, if not impossible, to import animals of all and any kinds.  Because of the prevalence of various diseases (hoof and mouth, respiratory, etc.), rarity to the point of being wiped out, ecological problems, all of which are causes of dwindling supply, zoo directors are hard-pressed to replace animals. It becomes mandatory for zoos to raise their own animals whenever possible or to trade surplus animals with other zoos. Sometimes either a male or female of a rare pair do not get along or one of them dies; in a few instances females have killed their husbands, more frequently than vice versa.” 

  • The spring 1980 issue of Animal Talk
    “There is a population of some 600 polar bears that live in the vicinity of the city of Churchill, Manitoba, on the west coast of Hudson Bay. While in Churchill last October, Zoological Society members Tom Fifield and Bill Chester and their wives asked about the possibility of obtaining a couple of polar bears for the Milwaukee County Zoo. Our new Zoo Director, Dr. Gilbert Boese, considers this source of a wild polar bear an excellent opportunity to establish a change in bloodline since he is planning to re-populate our polar bear exhibit.”

In 2010, the 100th anniversary of the Zoological Society, the Milwaukee County Zoo still has its beloved polar bears and several red kangaroos. We no longer have any Indian rhinos, but we do have two black rhinos, named Brewster and Mimi. Since the Endangered Species Act of 1973, zoos have been severely restricted from importing or exporting endangered or threatened species. Therefore, zoos have had to place a much higher priority on expanding their breeding programs and working with other zoos to acquire new animals. 

By Brianne Schwantes

* To keep track of animals and their “family trees,” the Association of Zoos and Aquariums keeps what it calls “studbooks.” These record books try to track the genetic history of every zoo animal in a species and are used to prevent inbreeding. Take the example of red kangaroos. In 2008, Milwaukee zookeeper Jessica Munson was producing the first-ever studbook on red kangaroos. “I’ve always wanted to do a studbook,” says Munson. “It’s a way to get involved in the zoo community.” Working several hours a week, both at the Milwaukee County Zoo and on her own time, Munson requests information about red kangaroos from every North American zoo that houses them. She then logs data into a computer program designed to plot animal family trees. As the population manager for red kangaroos, Munson also helps match up animals for breeding. There are people like Munson at zoos and aquariums throughout North America, each person tracking a specific animal species.

***Endangered Species Act - http://www.epa.gov/lawsregs/laws/esa.html

Celebrating 100 years of support

Join the Zoological Society’s Centennial Celebration in 2010. Go here for photos, stories and more.

 

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