Zoos and aquariums are often described largely in terms of what species they display - of equal or greater importance, however, is the manner in which they are displayed. Different facilities have, over the years, developed their own signature styles of exhibition - Philadelphia Zoo with its overhead passages, for example, or Louisville Zoo, with its trend-setting rotating exhibits.
Milwaukee County Zoo has its own exhibit-style-claim-to-fame. It is well-known in the zoo community for its backdrop predator/prey exhibits, where carnivores seem to share an enclosure with herbivores. It was a technique first developed by the German animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck Jr., but which Milwaukee has taken to extremes - almost all of its large mammals can be seen in these displays. In one panorama, impala and savannah birds graze a meadow while cheetahs prowl in the background, separated by a hidden moat. In other, zebra, ostrich, and antelope share a similar scene with lions or spotted hyenas, which rotate on-and-off the yard. Jaguar stalk alpaca and Baird's tapir, while Amur tigers can be seen behind Bactrian camels. Interspersed among these displays are habitats for the giants of the zoo - giraffe, hippopotamus, black rhinoceros, Malayan tapir, and African elephant.
More predator/prey drama can be seen in the zoo's spacious North American region, where polar bears and harbor seals seem to share a landscape. Both species can be observed above or below the surface of the water. Grassy yards for elk and caribou are nearby, along with rocky dens for black and grizzly bears. Rounding out the area are a small prairie dog exhibit, a mountain for Dall's sheep, and a beautiful, heavily wooded wolf exhibit. As far as I was concerned, however, the stars of the area (and possibly the zoo) for the rarely-exhibited moose. Moose are challenging to keep in captivity and are almost never seen outside of their native range, and it had been fifteen years since I'd seen the only moose I'd ever seen before today. Apart from the magnificence of the animals, the exhibit - a vast pond with marshy pastures wrapped around it - was perfectly well suited. The only thing that could have made the scene better for me is if one of the animals in question had been a male with a gorgeous spread of antlers.
The smaller animals of the zoo were distributed in a series of buildings spread across the campus. The Aviary featured an impressive collection of tropical birds in mixed-species aviaries; highlights for visitors include a walk-through wetland aviary and an Antarctic penguin display, complete with underwater viewing. Flamingos, screamers, and whooping cranes are found outside. The exhibits of the Small Mammal House weren't particularly stunning, but the variety of species was, split between diurnal and nocturnal galleries. Larger primates were found in the Primates of the World/Apes of Africa building (which seemed silly to me... why not just call it "Primates of the World" and be done with it?). Gorilla, bonobo (the largest troop outside of the Democratic Republic of Congo), orangutan, spider monkey, and other species are featured here (the gorillas and bonobos were off-exhibit on the day I visited, so not too much to report).
A final animal house was the spectacular Aquatic and Reptile Center. Normally I'm most interested in the reptiles, and true, the selection was nice. It was the aquarium portion, however - occupying the central island of the building - which impressed me the most. Most zoo aquariums are basically Amazon River fishes - and those were here. The main exhibit at Milwaukee, though, was lake fish of Wisconsin, and as an out-of-stater, it was really cool to see the giant, unusual freshwater fish that call this part of the country home (though I'm sure keepers get tired of visitors making fishing jokes).
Other exhibits around the zoo include an island of Japanese macaques, a small Australia House (red kangaroos, kookaburras, tree kangaroos, and a tank of Great Barrier Reef fish), and a pool of Humboldt penguins. The Children's Zoo was small, but very unique - taking a twist of the normal domestics-petting-barn, this one is a miniature working dairy, with daily milking demonstrations and ice cream made from zoo milk.
If there is one aspect of the zoo that I noticed more than any other, it was the specter of winter. An enormous portion of the zoo was indoors, and there were some species which I had never seen indoor exhibits for before coming here. The pachyderm exhibits, for instance, were butted up against indoor holding areas with large windows, which allowed visitors to see the animals year round. It also allowed a chance for visitors to see some of the behind-the-scenes care that the animals received; I watched hippo and rhino training on the day when I was there. The big cats and hyenas also have a winter display building, with adjacent outdoor exhibits for snow leopard and red panda.
I was a little torn as to how I felt about all of the indoor areas. On one hand, it's good to plan for bad winters and make sure that animals can be comfortably maintained year round. It's also good to let visitors get a look at how the animals are maintained; I always get lots of questions about what we do with some of our animals in the winter, and it's wise of Milwaukee (which receives winters far colder than those that my zoo faces) to show visitors what they do. Still, I had a hard time not wondering if maybe the solution was to invest more on exhibit space for boreal animals - those of North America, Patagonia, and northern Eurasia. I noticed that many of my favorite exhibits at Milwaukee were of cold-weather animals, perhaps because the zoo was able to focus so much more on outdoor exhibit space than split resources between indoor and outdoor. The Japanese macaque island, for instance, dazzled me so much more than the indoor habitats in the primate house.
After I returned from Wisconsin, I paged though a 1994 copy of The Zoo Book, Allen Nyhuis' earlier copy of his America's Best Zoos. I was astonished at one thing - while every other zoo reviewed by Nyhuis is now pretty much unrecognizable from his description over 20 years ago, Milwaukee County is still almost the exact same. Not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. The zoo is relatively young, only existing on its current site since 1951, so it reflects a relatively modern animal care philosophy. Still, much has been learned in the past 60 years, and I'm sure whatever changes come to Milwaukee County Zoo in the future will reflect that evolution.