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Remembering Dr. Gilbert K. Boese

Dr. Gilbert K. BoeseGilbert K. Boese, a global conservationist and a major influence on the Milwaukee County Zoo for more than a quarter century, died on March 22, 2018, at age 80. First as zoo director and later as president of the Zoological Society of Milwaukee (Society), he helped raise about $56 million through two capital campaigns that added 14 new or remodeled buildings to the Zoo.

“We just about rebuilt the entire Zoo since 1980,” said Dr. Boese in a 2005 interview, “and yet we did not destroy the zoological garden, the historical landmarks or the framework the park architects had. They created a marvelous atmosphere and put a zoo in it.”

“Dr. Boese was a charismatic and passionate scientist known for getting projects done,” said Jodi Gibson, current Society president and CEO. His ability to recruit donors from prominent Milwaukee families—Uihleins, Pecks, Stearns, Kuehns, Krauses, Fifields, Holzs, Mahlers, McKeithans, Wong, Borchert-Larson — helped not only with capital campaigns but with millions of dollars in other projects such as a special exhibits building that allowed the Zoo to host museum-quality exhibits that drew crowds in winter and in summer

Dr. Boese was hired as Milwaukee’s zoo director in 1979, when he was deputy director of the Brookfield Zoo. Ten years later, he became president and CEO of the nonprofit Zoological Society of Milwaukee, and Charles (Chuck) Wikenhauser became zoo director. Dr. Boese was proud of the successful public-private partnership that he and Wikenhauser fostered. The Society runs the education programs for the Zoo, supports Zoo conservation research, and recruits sponsors for events and special exhibits. Dr. Boese even created a Society tropical-butterflies exhibit that attracted thousands of Zoo visitors in the summers of 2000 and 2003. Said Wikenhauser, who in 2018 was in his 29th year as zoo director: “Gil Boese and I worked together from 1990 through 2008 on projects that renovated numerous animal exhibits and brought the Zoo into a modern era. He was the fundraiser. It was rewarding for both of us.”

Dr. Boese’s vision saw beyond buildings to animals and habitats that needed protection. “A zoo is a place to sensitize the public about the living creatures of the world, but it has to extend the conservation of those creatures beyond that,” he said. So he created or supported conservation projects to save animals in the wild, helped develop education programs to teach children to value the natural world, and used the Zoo to protect endangered species such as great apes, jaguars and extremely rare Guam kingfishers.

He understood that getting the message across – education – was intrinsic to conservation. He developed the Society into one of Milwaukee’s most effective nonprofits, one that had the independence and finances, he said, to build up the Zoo while carrying out strong education programs. “Gil has been an inspiration with his love and passion for conservation education. He worked endlessly making the Milwaukee County Zoo world-class, and he succeeded,” said Karen Peck Katz, who, like her late father, Bernard Peck, chaired the Zoological Society board and considered Dr. Boese a friend. “He will be immensely missed by all who knew him.” Peck family foundation funds helped build the Zoo’s Peck Welcome Center and the Karen Peck Katz Conservation Education Center.

His focus on conservation led him to leadership roles in international groups. He was chairman of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International in Rwanda and a director of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. He was president of the Foundation for Wildlife Conservation for 25 years.

“He was a gentleman of passion and knowledge about conservation, an ardent advocate for the environment and endangered species and a persistent salesman,” says Gerald Gerndt of Robert W. Baird Private Asset Management. Gerndt was FWC chairman in 2018. “I can personally attest to his ability to convince people to join him in his various causes. He persuaded me to join him on the Foundation for Wildlife Conservation board.”

Dr. Boese learned that conservation involves extreme challenges that include helping people as well as animals. “When I was chair of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, I was able to hold that organization together, despite all the trials we faced with war in Rwanda and the genocide,” he said in an interview. “We had maybe 40 employees, but we ended up being responsible for 300 people. We had a bunch of starving refugees, and we helped build a compound and get them food and clothes. We saved people’s lives.” Many of those people helped the conservation group go back up into the mountains to try and save gorillas.

Dr. Boese was a Renaissance man. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and chemistry from Carthage College, a master’s degree in biology from Northern Illinois University, and a Ph.D. in pathology, behavior and ecology from Johns Hopkins University. Yet he considered himself a zoologist. He studied baboons in Africa and explored Maya caves in Belize. He led 75 natural-history safaris worldwide. He helped design numerous animal exhibits, consulted on several film projects, published articles on his primate research and on conservation, and was a member of 18 environmental groups. He received at least 20 awards or honors, including a UNESCO Award, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International Achievement Award and the Dr. Marlin Perkins Conservationist of the Year Award. He could switch easily from academic language to homespun stories, such as this one from a 2005 interview:

 “I started my own zoo when I was about 7, in the basement. I had the snakes swim through snail tanks. I had an old lizard that I bought at the circus. I had fish. I raised crows and hawks. I had an opossum, but my mother made me take it back to the woods. I grossed my mother out all the time.”

In 1986, Gil Boese married Lillian Haefeli Ramaker, who was then Society executive director. They started Zoo Ball, the Society’s biggest annual fundraiser. When Dr. Boese became Society president in 1989, there were 18,000 memberships. By 2004, memberships increased to 52,000.  “Everything grew under Dr. Boese’s leadership: membership, special events, sponsorships, education programs, financial support of the Zoo, conservation projects and Zoo exhibits,” said Patty Harrigan Mills, whom Boese hired as director of marketing in 1990 and who still works for the Society recruiting sponsors.

Also in 1986 Dr. Boese brought bonobos, then a little-known great ape, to the Milwaukee County Zoo, which gained prominence as one of the few zoos displaying these apes. By 2018, the zoo had the largest captive bonobo group (21) in the North America and had sent many bonobos to other zoos. To help protect bonobos in their native habitat of Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo, Dr. Boese created a Society conservation program that started documenting bonobo populations in Congo and opened a patrol post and research station. Called the Bonobo & Congo Biodiversity Initiative (BCBI), the program also trained Congolese researchers and developed a children’s education program. Like anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey, who recruited women researchers to study the other three great apes – gorillas (Dian Fossey), chimpanzees (Jane Goodall) and orangutans (Birute Galdikas) – Dr. Boese recruited Dr. Gay Reinartz to head BCBI and do field research on bonobos. The Zoo features a display of her work and the research station. And the Society published a 2007 book, “Bonobos: Encounters in Empathy,” by Jo Sandin on the Zoo’s bonobos.

Birds were another passion of Dr. Boese. He created the Birds Without Borders-Aves Sin Fronteras project to study birds that migrated from Wisconsin to Belize. The goal was to find ways private landowners could protect birds along migration routes. Education was a strong component of the project. Boese was a co-author of two books – one for Belize and one for Wisconsin – that were landowners’ guides on how individuals could help birds. Lillian Boese said that during his last days, Dr. Boese enjoyed watching birds at a feeder outside his window.

In 2005, Boese stepped down as Society president but remained CEO until 2006 and then consulted on the New Zoo capital campaign until 2008. He also served as president of the Foundation for Wildlife Conservation from the time it was founded in 1993 to 2018.

Zoological Society President Jodi Gibson said, “While we mourn his loss, it is also important to celebrate his life knowing his legacy lives on through the joy so many families experience each day when they come to our Zoo.”

Dr. Boese was born June 24, 1937, in Chicago, to Winifred and Carl Boese. Dr. Boese is survived by his wife, Lillian (Haefeli), Pewaukee, WI; a sister, Judy Rosselli, Estero, FL; a son, Peter Boese (Pam), New Orleans, and daughter, Ann Boese Laughlin (David), Savannah, GA, with his first wife, Wilma; daughter Sara Ramaker, Los Angeles; stepson Jay Ramaker (Lara), Springfield, MO; and five grandchildren. A celebration of life is planned for June 2018.

The family suggests donations in Gil Boese’s name be made to the Zoological Society of Milwaukee, 10005 W. Bluemound Rd., Milwaukee, WI 53226; Lewa Wildlife Conservancy USA, PO Box 4449, New York, N.Y. 10163; The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, 800 Cherokee Ave., SE, Atlanta, GA 30315; or the Foundation for Wildlife Conservation, 10586 N.E. Manitou Park Blvd., Bainbridge Island, WA 98110.

This article is by Paula Brookmire, who was publications coordinator for the Zoological Society of Milwaukee from 1996 through 2014. She interviewed Gil Boese numerous times; many of the quotes in this piece were taken from interviews in 2005 and 2009. Quotes from other people were obtained in March 2018.