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A Century of Learning

As early as the 1930s, our Zoo’s leaders realized that zoos could be fun and educational. Yet it took decades to establish actual classes at the Zoo. And the Zoological Society of Milwaukee  (ZSM) was at the forefront of that effort. From informal Zoo tours to hundreds of classes held in a state-of-the-art building, the ZSM’s education programs have come a long way. A formal education department may be fairly new in the Society’s history (the department began in 1977), but education has been part of our mission since 1910. That year, directors of the newly chartered Washington Park Zoological Society (which later became the ZSM) included education in the group’s bylaws (see our early history here).

Here’s what Washington Park Zoo Director Ernst Untermann wrote in 1938:  

“In the last 40 years, the character of the zoo has changed from a mere menagerie of show animals to a center of scientific research and a link in the educational system…The zoo is expected to be not only a show place, but also an aid to the study of zoology, biology and paleontology, an experiment station for the study of animal and human psychology, a character builder, and a refuge for the conservation of valuable animals threatened with extinction.”

(This excerpt is from a paper Untermann probably presented at a meeting of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. You can read the full version here. The Washington Park Zoo became the Milwaukee County Zoo when it moved to its current Blue Mound Road location in Milwaukee, Wis., in the 1950s.)

Students sketch a llama

In 1952, an art class sketched a llama at the Washington Park Zoo. The photo and story appeared in Milwaukee Zoo News, a Zoological Society publication.

Untermann launched Zoo tours for school groups and the general public, with mixed success:

“We find that, with few exceptions, the general run of visitors shows little interest in this service. But some teachers have taken it up readily and expressed their satisfaction with it. A class of children coming here for a guided tour generally pulls along some of the other visitors.”

Education programs were more fruitful nearly 40 years later. In 1969, directors from the Milwaukee County Zoo and the ZSM hired a full-time educator to develop Zoo guide books and tours for teachers to use during field trips. In May 1970, the ZSM also created the first education committee of the Board of Directors. A formal education department, run by the University of Wisconsin Extension and Milwaukee County, with program funding from the ZSM, followed in 1977. Mary Thiry was the department’s director from 1977 to 1999.

“To be certified with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, zoos were recommended to add an education program. Plus, the Zoo knew that just seeing endangered species could only do so much. If you can have education programs about the animals, kids get more out of the Zoo visit,” she says.

Next: “There was nothing in a classroom because there were no classrooms.”


Celebrating 100 years of support

Join the Zoological Society’s Centennial Celebration in 2010.

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