About Us

Early History of the Zoological Society

Milwaukee, Wisconsin


  • The Washington Park Zoological Society was the name from 1910 to 1953.
  • In 1953 the name was changed to the Zoological Society of Milwaukee County, and today it is usually called the Zoological Society of Milwaukee (ZSM). 

Since 1910 the Zoological Society has been a driving force behind Milwaukee’s Zoo, from the time it was the 38-acre Washington Park Zoo on Vliet Street in Milwaukee, Wis., through the move to its 209-acre location on Blue Mound Road in the 1950s. Its name was changed to the Milwaukee County Zoo in 1953. The new Zoo officially opened on May 1, 1961.

Early lion and leopard enclosures

The Zoo has exhibited big cats since the early 1900s. These are early lion and leopard enclosures.

Photo: Jos. Brown

You can find a story on the Zoological Society’s last 100 years in the January 2010 issue of Alive magazine. One of our sources for that story was a wonderful history of the Zoological Society written in 1947.* It starts with the founding members in 1910 and takes you chronologically through many of the animal stars that the Society acquired for the Zoo. Click here for a 3 MB PDF version of that history.

George Spiedel and officers introduced to new tiger cub

In 1953 officers of the Washington Park Zoological Society were introduced to a new leopard cub. From left are Zoo Director George Speidel, Third Vice President Larry H. Smith, President Philip Orth Jr., Second Vice President E.J. Copps, Secretary-Treasurer Hartley Joys, and First Vice President William A. Lohse.

Photo from Milwaukee Zoo News

In its first 50 years, the Society had three key roles: 1) bring in money to expand the Zoo, 2) build community support and understanding of wildlife, and 3) acquire animals. “From 1910 through 1947, the Zoological Society added more than $500,000 of housing and equipment to the Zoo” and acquired ALL of the animals “through purchase, donation, exchange, and reproduction by Zoo specimens,” note the authors of the 1947 Zoological Society history.* “Not a dollar of tax money” was spent buying animals, they noted. Even in 2010, tax money is not used to buy animals, says Milwaukee County Zoo Director Chuck Wikenhauser; instead, money from sales (such as train tickets and milk from the Zoo’s dairy) goes into trusts to use for animal purchases and transportation. Click here for more details on how the Society purchased animals.

Washington Park Zoo aerial photo Animal house postard - Washington Park Zoo

This aerial view of the Washington Park Zoo shows buildings such as the Animal House (left center), also shown to the right in a 1928 post card by E.C. Kropp. (Aerial view photographer unknown.)

*The history is as told by Judge Walter Schinz and Henry C. Fuldner to Oliver E. Remey; copyright Charles I. Wesley, then immediate past president of the Washington Park Zoological Society.


We will have more historical stories throughout 2010, including one in the April 2010 Alive on the 35th anniversary of Zoo Pride, the Zoological Society’s volunteer auxiliary.

Before 1910:

Milwaukee purchased land in 1891 for a park to be called West Park, and key civic leaders immediately called for the park to include a zoo. West Park zoo came into existence in 1892, when a display of eight deer and an eagle was created in a park barn. By mid-1893 the zoo had built a bear den for two donated bears and a yard for three donated elk. In 1899 Milwaukee constructed its first animal building for the zoo. And on Sept. 20, 1900, West Park’s name was changed to Washington Park. By 1906, the Zoo had 75 animals. Some people who were involved in the 1910 founding of the Washington Park Zoological Society (WPZS) were involved in early animal purchases for the zoo. For example, Ald. Henry “Heine” Bulder started a campaign that resulted in the purchase of Princess Heine the elephant in 1907. Bulder was a founding member of the WPZS. And before the WPZS was chartered, three other similar groups donated animals: the Milwaukee Zoological Society, the Nineteenth Ward Zoo Club and the Citizens of the 22nd Ward.

Vintage photo gallery:

Click here to see historical photos of Washingon Park Zoo and the Milwaukee County Zoo through the years.

More on Zoo and Zoological Society history:

Text by Paula Brookmire; contributions from Sam LaMalfa, Bess Frank and Mary Kazmierczak.

Celebrating 100 years of support

Join the Zoological Society’s Centennial Celebration in 2010.

Go here for photos, stories and more