News Column

Zoo director hopes future includes helping more endangered species

June 26, 2014

By Rob Schultz, The Wisconsin State Journal

June 26--Henry Vilas Zoo director Ronda Schwetz is proud of the transition that zoos have made during her lifetime; they've shifted from simple collection points for animals to places that take excellent care of those animals and use them to help and save their brethren in the wild.

"That has made zoos feel really right to me," said Schwetz, 44, who has been director for nearly three years.

Schwetz believes the popular Henry Vilas Zoo was already ahead of the curve with its conservation programs before she arrived, and she is working hard to improve those programs without breaking Dane County's budget.

So far, so good. Schwetz is overseeing the construction of the $8.6 million Arctic Passage, a 1.7-acre addition that will include new digs for polar and grizzly bears and other cold-weather animals. It's part of the master plan to organize the zoo by regional aspects.

"It's an excellent example of what we want to become. We are designing exhibits that are made and designed specifically for the animals and their natural behaviors so that it's a very rich environment for them," she said.

Cost-saving features include solar panels on the seal building to operate life-support systems and storage facilities for the water when the animal pools are cleaned that will save the zoo from using an additional two million gallons of water a year.

Construction also is underway for a new year-round restaurant that will be next to Arctic Passage.

The restaurant is expected to generate income to support zoo operations, help pay for the new addition and, perhaps, establish a rainy-day fund.

"We keep pushing each other to see how much we can think of to become as sustainable as we can be," Schwetz said. "We want to make sure we're walking the walk when we talk about the next generation reserving its resources."

Schwetz is a native of McFarland. She graduated from UW-Stevens Point with degrees in biology and psychology and worked previously at zoos in Chippewa Falls, Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida and the Denver Zoo.

She and her husband, Jim, are parents to 11-year-old twins -- a son, Cameron, and daughter, Kaitlin.

Q: You mentioned that zoo directors have been asked to focus on saving specific species that are endangered. What endangered species are best fits for the zoo in terms of climate?

A: There's this animal called the Somali Wild Ass. It's a very beautiful animal that is very closely related in size and looks to the zebra and is critically endangered.

What we'd like to do is say, "OK, here are zebras that you know and love and see. And here are Somali Wild Asses that are going extinct in the wild and this is their story and why we need to preserve all of that habitat."

Q: What are some other animals you'd like to see here that would be a great fit with the our climate?

A: Once we finish the Arctic Passage, we're thinking about moving the harbor seals and that would open up a whole new area. The direction we're trending towards is turning that into a really nice cat area. ... We'd upgrade for the lions, move the tigers so it makes sense geographically and then bring in some really cool animals like snow leopards as well as clouded leopards because they need a lot of help in saving their species.

Q: How do your zoo keepers make a difference with conservation efforts?

A: Our red panda keeper, Jen Zuehlke, and our penguin keeper, Gary Hartlage, are very passionate about it. The red pandas conservation effort has grown from raising about $80 three years ago to several thousand dollars last year. The money goes to the red panda network that does conservation studies on red pandas in the wild.

Our keeper has a great relationship with red pandas. Our red pandas like to paint. They walk across paint and create one-of-a-kind artwork and are put up for sale.

Our keeper also does talks and training demos and people can come and donate or buy paintings.

The keepers also created key chains with pictures of the little red pandas on them and sold them. All of it goes straight to the red panda network.

-- Interview by

Rob Schultz


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Source: Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI)

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