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How The Milwaukee County Zoo Is Planning To Reopen Amid Coronavirus

Updated June 8 at 1:02 p.m. CT

Milwaukee County Zoo will reopen on June 18 after being closed since mid-March due to the coronavirus. But it's not all back to normal, as phase one will require people to purchase tickets online and have other restrictions in place.

There are over 2,000 animals at the zoo, and 65 staff members are currently the only humans allowed on the grounds to care for them, according to Milwaukee County Zoo Director Chuck Wikenhauser. About 90% of the zoo staff are working reduced hours, some are working remotely if not involved in animal care, and no seasonal workers have returned to their jobs yet. 

With utilities, animal food and personnel as the biggest fixed costs for the zoo, the loss of revenue from being closed to the public is vast. But the zoo staff is still hard at work making sure the animals are well taken care of and engaged — whether it’s creating new engagement activities or taking an iguana on a field trip to see some fish. 

Credit Milwaukee County Zoo
Digger, a Grand Cayman blue iguana, takes a supervised walk with his keeper to see the Amazon River Habitat in the Zoo's Aquatic & Reptile Center.

Wikenhauser says since the zoo closed its doors on March 15, it already faces millions in lost revenue. "We project, if the zoo didn't open until June 30, for instance, that would mean a net loss of $3 million," he says.

Not being able to charge admission or sell merchandise has hurt business, but the zoo has continued to provide health care and other services to their animals.

"We haven't sacrificed anything on the animal care side, we've provided the personal protective equipment that's needed," notes Wikenhauser. "That protection also continues over to protecting the animals themselves. With great apes and primates, we have been using facemasks minimally for quite some time because they are susceptible to some of the same diseases humans are."

Credit Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Zoo
Reticulated giraffes Marlee, Maya and Bahatika, enjoy a snack from zookeeper Joan.

Zookeepers have also had to rely on toys, puzzles, and games to play with animals since the lack of engagement with patrons can weigh on the animals.

Luckily, supply chains shutting down has not inhibited the zoo. "We have at least a six month supply of all the animal food that would be required, that is except for fresh produce and we haven't had any issues with that," notes Wikenhauser. 

The Milwaukee County Zoo has a plan in place to reopen in three phases. 

Phase one, which it will enter on June 18, will require all tickets to ordered online. "We would have timed entry along with that so that people won't crowd, and initially we will limit that number of people on grounds to about 1,500 to 2,500," explains Wikenhauser.

The zoo has a total capacity of 12,000 to 15,000 people, and "the second phase we would certainly increase [the limit] to as many as 6,000 people and then following that we could go to normal operations," he adds. 

While the zookeepers are taking care of animals and the administration is putting together the reopening plan, people at home still can see the animals. There are several live webcams where viewers can watch animals like jaguars and penguins in real-time, plus Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages with daily updates about the animals. 

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.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.