Milwaukee County Zoo prepares for spring unveiling of new elephant exhibit

Will begin work soon on new hippo exhibit

An aerial rendering of the new elephant yard.

The elephants of the Milwaukee County Zoo have moved to their new home, as the zoo prepares for a public unveiling of its new elephant exhibit this spring.

An aerial rendering of the new elephant yard at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

The zoo’s African elephants, Brittany and Ruth, are now adjusting to their new home, which includes a 1.6-acre outdoor elephant area and a 20,000-square-foot elephant care center. The project has also added two mixed species exhibits, which include zebra, bongo, impala and yellow-backed duiker.

It’s the first phase of a series of improvements to the zoo – called Adventure Africa – which will be completed over the next few years.

In May 2018, the Zoological Society of Milwaukee went public with a $25 million capital campaign to fund Adventure Africa, which it says represents the largest-ever physical change to the Milwaukee County Zoo at its current location. The Zoo Society has raised $17.8 million to date toward that goal.

Now, the zoo is preparing for the next phase of Adventure Africa: a new hippo exhibit with underwater viewing.

The new hippo exhibit at the Milwaukee County Zoo will allow visitors to view the hippos while underwater.

The zoo will soon begin the bidding process on the work for the new hippo exhibit, with construction expected to begin in the spring. The exhibit, which will be at least threes time larger than the current hippo space and include a seven-foot-deep pool, will provide visitors with an improved viewing experience, said Jodi Gibson, president and chief executive officer of the Zoological Society.

“Right now when you come to the zoo, hippos spend most of the time under water, but you can’t see them; often you just see the top of the hippo,” Gibson said. “With this new exhibit, it will just be a big piece of glass that separates you from the hippo and you’ll be able to see the hippo while it’s underwater. It will be a fantastic opportunity.”

Behind the scenes, the exhibit will feature a massive filtration system that is estimated to save 20 million gallons of water annually, Gibson said.

A rendering of the planned hippo exhibit at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

“I think we’re on the forefront of what new and modern design of hippo exhibits entails,” she said.

Future phases of Adventure Africa will include creating new homes for rhinos and African hoofstock. Portions of those new exhibits will occupy the now-vacant former elephant exhibit, Gibson said.

She said she expects the Zoo Society will be able to complete its $25 million fundraising goal within the next two years.

“We need the public’s help to do that,” Gibson said. “While we’ve been fortunate to have some million-dollar-plus gifts to launch the campaign and anchor our activities, we want to make sure the public knows that donations of all sizes matter and make a difference.”

Lead gifts to the campaign came from the Dohmen Family Foundation, Holz Family Foundation, Ladish Family Foundation and MillerCoors.

Other significant gifts have included a $1 million donation from the Northwestern Mutual Foundation toward the project and a $750,000 gift from the We Energies Foundation to fund a second-floor terrace where visitors will be able to view the new elephant exhibit.

Despite the upgrades to its elephant exhibit, the Milwaukee County Zoo has continued to face criticism from California-based In Defense of Animals, which included the zoo on its annual list of the “10 Worst Zoos for Elephants” in North America.

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Lauren Anderson
Lauren Anderson covers health care, nonprofits, education and insurance for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism, history and African studies. In her free time, Lauren enjoys spending time with family and friends and seeing live music wherever she can.