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'Elephants Taught Me Everything': Milwaukee County Zoo's Large Animal Curator

Milwaukee County Zoo
The Milwaukee County Zoo's new Adventure Africa habitat seeks to give elephants a life that they will display as many natural behaviors for as much of the day as possible.

Aug. 12 is World Elephant Day. But for these intelligent, social and compassionate creatures, the statistics are grim. In 1980, there were around 1.3 million elephants in Africa. By 2012, there were less than of half that number remaining. There are only between 40,000 and 50,000 Asian elephants left.

Despite conservation efforts around the world, dwindling habitat and continued ivory poaching keep elephants on the endangered list. One elephant is killed approximately every 15 minutes. If that rate continues, the species could be extinct in the wild in 10 years.

The Milwaukee County Zoo works hard to educate people about these animals and the dangers they face. The zoo is also celebrating and helping them as well, especially as the zoo celebrates World Elephant Day.

One elephant is killed approximately every 15 minutes.

"[Elephants] are very bright. When I came to interview for this job, they asked me what I knew about training animals and I told them elephants taught me everything," says Tim Wild, curator of large animals at the Milwaukee County Zoo. "They taught me how to train them ... They kind of know what I'm going to do better than I do sometimes."

Wild notes that there's a lot we are learning about elephants "under pressure." From changing moving patterns to how fragmented habitats affect growing populations. "Basically the more we learn about how they react to it, the more we can figure out what to do about it," he says.

In general, Wild says zoos are also practicing better elephant care. Young elephants aren't being moved around as much, and older elephants are being kept in bigger, more stable social groups. While Wild notes not all elephants are going to be compatible all the time, "the science in zoos shows that the bigger groups, the more social interaction they have. There's a lot of variables that improve in their well-fare."

Outside of caring for the animals year-round, zoos are also important in its role in educating visitors. Wild hopes people can come away with a new appreciation for zoos and the animals in them.

"Trying to give an animal a life that they will display as many natural behaviors for as much of the day as possible — that's what we strive for."

"I've talked to a few people in my career who've come in with negative opinions of [zoos]. And once they get to talk to somebody and kind of understand what we're doing and why we're doing it and getting to know a bit more about the elephants on a personal level, they kind of change their minds a little bit," he says.

Wild says that getting to see animals up close is one of the greatest tools in helping people appreciate the wild more. "Trying to give an animal a life that they will display as many natural behaviors for as much of the day as possible — that's what we strive for," he says.  

The Milwaukee County Zoo recently completed the Adventure Africa habitat for their elephants. One of the main points of the exhibit is "to show people how we take care of them," explains Wild. "Let them actually see what we do with them every day, and let them know that we have put a lot of science into this, a lot of research and we tried to create the best thing we could."

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Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.