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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

Were Visitors Really Allowed To Feed Polar Bears Marshmallows At The Milwaukee County Zoo?

Mitch Teich
Snow Lilly taking a snooze in her enclosure at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

Editor's note: This piece was originally published April 6, 2018.

When was the last time you went to the Milwaukee County Zoo? Did you see the polar bear? You didn't feed it anything, right? Well, Bubbler Talk question-asker Jessica Ols has been wondering about her trips to the zoo in the early 1980s:

"I have vague memories of when I was little that you can feed marshmallows to the polar bears at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Everybody I talk to says I'm insane," she laughs. "Because there's no way the zoo would allow you to do that. Even in my mind, I think, 'You're right. There's no way the zoo officials would allow people to just feed their animals marshmallows.'

"At the same time," Jessica points out, "it's such an absurd thing for me to come up with on my own that I'm convinced that it had to have happened."

It does sound crazy.

Credit Mitch Teich
Jessica: You did not make this memory up, zoo librarian Mary also remembers feeding the bears marshmallows.

And on a rare beautiful spring morning, it seemed crazy not to go to the zoo's polar bear enclosure to look for the answer. Snow Lilly was out, but she was asleep and could not answer Jessica's question. There were a lot of little kids around as well, but it didn't seem right to put any marshmallow ideas into their heads.

So, it was the Zoo Administration Annex, inside the Northwestern Mutual Family Farm, where the answer resided. Within the farm resides the zoo's library is, and within the library resides — or works — Mary Kazmierczak. She's the librarian and information specialist for both the Zoo and Zoological Society of Milwaukee.

LISTEN: Why Does the Milwaukee Zoo Have A Library?

Mary knows a lot about the history of the Milwaukee County Zoo. Before she was the librarian, she was a Zoo Pride volunteer, and before that, she grew up in Milwaukee and took trips to the zoo.

Credit Historic Photo Collection / Milwaukee Public Library
Polar bears in the old cages at the Washington Park Zoo. Sign indicates that they were fed daily at 2:30 p.m. (Assuming the sign is not referring to marshmallow feedings.)

So we put the question to Mary: Is it possible that Jessica fed marshmallows to the polar bears and did not get in trouble?

"Oh yes, not only it is possible," she says, "but I too have a childhood memory of throwing marshmallows to the bears."

Mary explains that at one time, this was something people were allowed to do — not only at the Milwaukee County Zoo, but at zoos across the country. "In fact," she explains, "we have skeletal evidence of the [marshmallows'] effect on bears. We have a black bear skull that has fillings in all of its teeth."

Credit Joel Miller, Milwaukee County Zoo
Cavity-filled bear teeth.

It turns out that this falls under the category of "Funny, Quaint Things We Used To Be OK With." Filed under the same category is a historical photograph of an experiment from when the zoo used to be at Washington Park. For a brief period, all kinds of bears were in a single enclosure.

Credit Historic Photo Collection / Milwaukee Public Library
Yup, this really happened.

"If you are referencing the picture I think you are referencing," Mary explains, "it was a mixed species exhibit from the 1930s, in which they had grizzly bear cubs, black bear cubs, polar bear cubs, and wolf cubs. The zoo director at the time thought if he could raise all of these animals together, they would be friends."

And this is where our story takes a dark turn that might make you uncomfortable.

"What happened is the polar bear is the top predator in that group and the polar bear drowned the black bear cubs one at a time — in full view of the public. The county board did not appreciate that and [the zoo director lost] his job. It was a mistake."

So, there's that.

Credit Mitch Teich
Snow Lilly thanks you for helping to keep her teeth clean.

On a happier note, listener Jessica was pretty pleased that we were able answer her marshmallow question: "Oh my gosh, I'm not crazy! It is wonderful! I'm just so thrilled to finally have a definitive answer on this. Hot dog!" [Wait, hot dogs, too?]

The obvious point we should make is that the zoo does not allow feeding its animals anymore. It's a $500 fine, in fact.

"Marshmallows are good for s'mores, not for animals," zoo librarian Mary reminds us.

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