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Washington Park Zoo polar bear escape inspires new book for young readers

Joseph Brown
Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Zoo
Clown, with three other polar bears at the Washington Park Zoo, circa 1915-1920.

You may recall all of the excitement there was when some thought there was a “Milwaukee lion” roaming around back in 2015. While it was never found, this event inspired one local author to look into other animal escapes that actually did happen here.

book jacket of How to Catch a Polar Bear
Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
book jacket of How to Catch a Polar Bear

In April of 1921, a full grown male polar bear named Clown escaped from the Washington Park Zoo overnight and roamed the neighborhoods around Washington Park for a few hours before he was caught. This event was the inspiration for Stacy DeKeyser's new book for young readers, How to Catch a Polar Bear.

"It happened to be early morning, so not too many people were out. But the newspaper reports did mention something about spilled trash cans and possibly a startled milkman before the police caught up with Clown," says DeKeyser. The book focuses on three 12-year-old boys living in Milwaukee in 1948 who use the zoo as their playground and have to solve the mystery of the missing bear.

"The character Nick is based on my dad's childhood ... and so I really have enjoyed writing that character and sort of just immersing myself in the world of 1948 Milwaukee, because it's allowed me to do a lot of research and just learn about the history of my hometown," DeKeyser says.

Washington Park in Milwaukee no longer has a zoo, but there are still remnants of it that remain in the area today. The zoo was located on the southwest corner of the park, near the corner of Vliet Street and 47th Street. There's a circular driveway, a parking lot, and a stone retaining wall with a three-foot-tall chain link fence on top of it. This area was the buffalo pen, as the stone wall was the retaining structure that kept animals from escaping.

DeKeyser hopes that the book inspires anyone who reads it to have a deeper respect for the animals at our zoos. "I just hope that kids learn to appreciate the animals they're looking at and realize that they're sentient creatures. That they're here for us, and maybe tell them 'thanks' for letting us share time with them," she says.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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