About Us

A Century of Learning

Despite the small size of the Zoological Society’s new Education Department (three educators) and modest headquarters (at first a small room in the Zoo’s Flamingo Gift Shop, then a double-wide trailer in the former Children’s Zoo), it still served about 10,000 children its first year.

Chris Luetner, early Zoo Pride education volunteer

Chris Leutner volunteers for the Zoological Society in the 1980s. Contributed photo.

In the early 1980s, Zoo Pride volunteers helped the educators teach classes. “The Department wouldn’t have grown as much without volunteers,” says Thiry. Chris Leutner, a founding member of Zoo Pride, remembers this time fondly:

“We would meet a group, do an orientation and just take off into the Zoo. There was nothing in a classroom because there were no classrooms…that luxury didn’t exist.”

By the late 1980s, the Education Department had moved its offices to four trailers behind the Milwaukee County Zoo’s aviary. 

“There was a woodchuck and a skunk that lived beneath the trailers, and when they fought you could smell the skunk,” says Mary Thiry.

Despite lack of space, by 1987, about 167,430 children and adults attended the education programs. In the days before online registration, camp sign-up was held at the Zoo. The registration line for the popular summer camps snaked from the Education Department’s then-home on the Zoo’s farm all the way to the Zoo’s entrance, remembers Thiry. Zoo Priders sold hot chocolate and coffee to the waiting guests.

Early education class - Gentle Giants

Kids and parents in a Zoological Society class at the Zoo play with handmade giraffe projects.

In 1989, the ZSM began running the Education Department, and launched six-days-a-week, year-round programs. That year, the department served 201,468 children and adults. That included numerous school classes that came to the Zoo and used curricula provided by the ZSM for self-directed tours. Endangered animals and animal adaptations were popular class topics, says Mary Thiry, but the classes didn’t change too much over the years.

“If the programs changed at all, it was to make them more hands-on. There was more talking and lecturing at first. But there was always a Zoo tour component to the classes—we tried to get the kids out in the Zoo as soon as possible.”

In the 1990s, new programs were created to reach more school kids and youth groups. The Animal Ambassador program, launched in 1989, reached children attending schools in economically disadvantaged areas in metro-Milwaukee (go here for photos and a 2009 story on the 20th anniversary of the program).

The Recycled Zoo program (1995-2004), which was sponsored by Miller Brewing Company (now called MillerCoors), invited youth groups to work in teams to create animal-themed sculptures and artwork out of recycled materials. Their projects were displayed at the Zoo.

Recycled Zoo Recycled Zoo

Students create and show off animal art made of recycled materials. The artworks were part of the Zoological Society’s annual Recycled Zoo program.

The ZSM’s Quilt Project matched elementary-school students in metro-Milwaukee schools with nursing homes and senior centers. Kids researched animals and created quilt squares, which the seniors sewed together (the program ran 1989-1997). Zoo Pride volunteer Chris Leutner, who worked as a schoolteacher at the time, taught the program at her school:

“It was amazing. At the end of the program the kids and seniors would come to the Zoo together. It’s a piece in our society that we’re missing, taking care of older people. This program was more than just making quilts and sticking patches. It taught respect.”

Quilt Project Quilt Project

Kids and seniors created quilts and toured the Zoo together as part of the ZSM’s Quilt Project.

The Kimberly-Clark Keepers of the Wild program, which ran 1996 to 2001, gave educators a chance to do outreach programs about Wisconsin animals throughout the state. The Zoological Society developed a curriculum guide for teachers, sent educators into several schools and taught teachers how to continue the program in their classrooms.

Keepers of the Wild

Students get an up-close look at artifacts such as animal skulls.

Journey into the Wild (1995-1998), funded by the Alvin & Marion Birnschein Foundation, featured a classroom that looked like a safari station, complete with a “campsite,” camouflage netting and a mud-splattered, land-roving vehicle. Instructors sometimes wore safari gear as they guided kids through a make-believe journey to the outback, the savanna or the rain forest. 

Journey into the Wild

A Zoological Society educator dressed in safari gear (center) shows animal skulls to students.

Another popular program is Dairy Farm Delight, which started in 1986 and continues in a somewhat changed version today. This program teaches young children how dairy products get from the cow to the store. Kids tour the mini-dairy farm in the Milwaukee County Zoo’s Dairy Barn. For information on the March 2010 program for grades K4 through first grade, please go to the ZSM’s school programs brochure.

Dairy Farm Delight

Schoolchildren “shopped” for dairy products using miniature carts and checkout lanes in an early version of the program.

The Care for Critters program started in 1994 and was one of the most popular and far-reaching educational programs of the Zoological Society. Sponsored by Roundy’s Pick ‘n Save, the program brought live animals ranging from raptors to small mammals into schools, public libraries, Pick ‘n Save stores and summer festivals for more than 10 years. The program included both animal information and a conservation message. Just in its first year, the free program reached 43,347 schoolchildren in 208 schools plus hundreds more in 23 public programs. The program ended about 2005.

As in the past, volunteers were key to the department. They helped develop and teach school programs called Education Opportunities, which included talks and tours in several animal buildings. They also helped test new classes and programs. Chris Leutner volunteered on weekends to launch a class on carnivores. Some volunteers, such as Dr. Kay Elsen, a longtime Zoo Prider and a retired chemistry professor at Milwaukee’s Mount Mary College, helped develop and teach professional training courses for schoolteachers. VIP docents (volunteers who have extra training) also lead behind-the-scenes Zoo tours during these courses. Today, volunteers help in the department each year. They do everything from leading Zoo tours to preparing projects materials for classes.

Art & Funny Animal Behaviors

A child is entranced by a Zoo Pride volunteer’s pointy hat. Kids in this Zoological Society class created fun animal crafts.

Next: The Education Department’s growth spurt


Celebrating 100 years of support

Join the Zoological Society’s Centennial Celebration in 2010.

Go here for photos, stories and more