Natalie's Everyday Heroes: Milwaukee County Zoo Director Chuck Wikenhauser

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Chuck Wikenhauser has served as the director of the Milwaukee County Zoo for more than 30 years. Earlier this year, he announced he’s retiring on April 1.

CBS 58 is taking a look back at his accomplishments that have made the zoo a better place for people and animals, and also at what has inspired Wikenhauser’s career.

If you get the chance to walk through the zoo with Wikenhauser, he’ll be pointing out cheetahs.

“Oh, there she is. You can see her right up here,” he said with excitement.

With snow on the ground, he’s checking on the zebras.

“You can see, they've kind of a got a fuzzy coat here, too, because they've been exposed to the cold,” he noticed.

And he’s especially good at spotting hidden hippos.

“He likes to stay under water and then he comes up about every five minutes,” he said of the zoo’s male hippo, Happy. He also noted hippos walk under water—they don’t swim.

Wikenhauser’s passion for the zoo and its animals is clear.

“I've been here 31 years in January,” he said.

There’s a photo of a fresh-faced Wikenhauser on his very first day as director at the Milwaukee County Zoo, but his love for animals started long before that.

“Well, I'm a Midwest boy,” he explained. “I grew up on a farm in Illinois, central Illinois.”

His Milwaukee connection goes way back, too. To a time before the Milwaukee County Zoo existed.

“As a matter of fact, the old Washington Park Zoo, I have a photo of my mother and two sisters sitting on a bench in the Washington Park Zoo,” he said, noting that his family used to come visit the city.

And it’s almost an inevitability he ended up with this career.

“With my ability and history of working with animals on the farm, it was only natural to find a zookeeper position that was advertised, and applied for it and got it,” Wikenhauser said with a smile. “And the rest is history, I guess you'd say.”

It’s history he’s made at the Milwaukee County Zoo. During his three decades here, Wikenhauser has undertaken big projects.

“Everything he has done has been with a long-term commitment to this institution,” said Jodi Gibson, president and CEO of the Zoological Society of Milwaukee.

Adventure Africa opened in May 2019. The elephant exhibit sparks personal pride.

“I've had the opportunity to see them in the wild several times,” he said of the elephants. “And to get them into a new exhibit and to comply with accreditation standards, that was a dream come true.”

Hippo Haven opened this past summer. The North American River Otter Exhibit is another favorite. In all, nearly $120 million dollars have been invested in improvements on Wikenhauser’s watch.

“Some you can't see because they're infrastructure and things, but we have transformed almost every area of the zoo over that time period,” he said.

Even after he retires, his name will be a permanent fixture at the zoo. Part of the path was named Wikenhauser Way on his 30th anniversary as director.

“To me, it's not just a pathway, but it's a way of leading our organization, and celebrating him and everything he's done,” Gibson said. “I think we have a responsibility to carry on that legacy.”

Gibson also said she thinks Wikenhauser will have a hard time staying away from the zoo.

“What I said to Chuck is, I think he's going to retire, but I don't think he's ever going to quit supporting or loving our zoo,” she said with a laugh.

He definitely won’t stop loving animals. During our conversation, he was quick to pull up some photos on his cellphone.

“They jumped up on the hood, and then they, oh, my gosh, it's a two-story kind of thing,” he said, explaining his up close encounter with some young cheetahs.

They’re photos from a safari Wikenhauser hosted in Tanzania.

“I'm looking up there and I'm thinking that this is the neatest thing that's ever happened to me,” he said with wonder.

Gibson was there for it, too.

“That was fantastic. To be able to see Chuck in his element, we're out in the wild, with animals in their natural state,” she said.

His appreciation for animals is laying the groundwork for continued education and conservation at the zoo. Wikenhauser is officially retiring April 1, but what he’s accomplished will inspire kids at the zoo for years to come.

“I think that's a goal -- making sure the kids really get enthused about them and then you educate them along the way,” he said.

Wikenhauser said he plans on fundraising for Zoological Society and working on zoo accreditation inspections in his retirement.

If you’d like to nominate someone for Natalie’s Everyday Heroes, send Natalie a message at NShepherd@cbs58.com.

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