COVID disruption will push back third phase of Milwaukee County Zoo’s Adventure Africa project

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While the Milwaukee County Zoo was able to complete the second of its three-phased African animal exhibit renovation during the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, the zoo’s fundraising organization said the health crisis will likely delay timelines for the project’s final phase.

The zoo opened its new hippo exhibit, the second component of its multi-year Adventure Africa project, in June. The new hippo home is more than three times larger than the former space, featuring a seven-foot-deep pool and improved viewing for visitors.

“We were able to complete and open the new underwater hippo exhibit on time and on budget,” said Jodi Gibson, president and chief executive officer of the Zoological Society of Milwaukee, which partners with the county to raise funds for the zoo. 

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The Zoological Society has raised $20 million to date toward its $25 million campaign goal for Adventure Africa, Gibson said. The first phase of the project, a new 1.6-acre outdoor elephant home and 20,000-square-foot elephant care center, opened in 2019. 

But the disruption of COVID-19 is likely to delay progress on the third phase, a new rhino exhibit. Gibson said the organization would like to be farther along in its fundraising efforts before committing to a project timeline. 

“There will likely be a bit of a delay from our original plans,” Gibson said. “… It’s not yet clear when we would undertake the rhino exhibit. But that is on deck.” 

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This year has presented plenty of challenges for the zoo, which closed on March 15 due to COVID-19 and reopened with limited capacities in mid-June. About 40% of Zoo Pass holders have dropped their membership, a major source of revenue, amid the pandemic. 

The Zoological Society also had to cancel its signature gala and largest fundraiser, the Zoo Ball, typically held in June.

The disruption has contributed to “millions“ in lost revenue, Gibson said. 

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Now, the organization is preparing to host a virtual fundraising event, called “It’s a Wild World,” to help make up the gap. 

Gibson said the organization intentionally chose to make the event – scheduled for Friday, Sept. 11 – open to the public. 

“The intention is to say we welcome everyone and need gifts of all sizes – $5, $50, $500, and I’m crossing my fingers for $5,000 or more,” Gibson said. 

It’s also an opportunity for the community to learn more about the Zoological Society’s virtual programming that it has developed in the past few months, along with its conservation work, Gibson said. 

“Out of crisis comes innovation,” she said. “We were really excited to tackle virtual learning, and distance learning is something we had on deck that we wanted to do. This just accelerated our ability to do that.” 

Moving forward, one of the organization’s top priorities is rebuilding its Zoo Pass membership program. With new elephant and hippo exhibits to showcase, Gibson said, it’s a good time to make the case for members to return. 

“Hopefully that (program) will bounce back as we continue to get our arms around the virus and find that post-pandemic world and what that looks like,” she said.

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