Thanks to a partnership with UWM's School of Freshwater Sciences, bears, seals and other animals at the Milwaukee County Zoo can now go fishing and feast on their catch.
For many of years, zoos around the country bought live fish from local bait shops to feed to their animals. But 15 years ago, Milwaukee's zoo ended the practice, after concerns arose about those fish transmitting disease and parasites.
It wasn't until recently that the Milwaukee County Zoo discovered a source - UWM's School of Freshwater Sciences.
Zookeeper Mike Hoffmann has been on a mission for the last couple years to bring healthy, live fish back to the zoo. With a career spanning nearly three decades, Hoffmann says he wants to enrich the lives of animals under his watch.
“[Hunting live fish] means that they have something to do besides eat food that’s prepared for them and lay on the concrete,” Hoffmann explains. “Now they’re figuring out how to fish. They’re intelligent animals; problem solving skills are being utilized. It’s an enriched environment.”
UWM senior scientist Fred Binkowski couldn't agree more.
“Mike Hoffmann reached out to us, saying he’s been searching for the last 18 months, trying to a location where they could get fish free of parasites and disease," Binkowski says. "That message got me interested right away. My bachelors degree is in zoology and I haven’t been able to practice that for thirty years, so now I can do that."
The scientist raises fish at UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences in a bio-secure lab. He’s established a reputation as an expert, but 10 miles west, the county zoo wasn’t necessarily aware of his credentials.
“We had a meeting with staff people and veterinarians in February and they all seemed positive about it," Binkowski says. "So Mike and I set up a time when it would be convenient to bring the first batch over."
One month later, the first zoo animals to sample Binkowski’s yellow perch were the harbor seals.
“They went after the fish right away and that was really good to see that,” Binkowski says.
Binkowski believes his lab's expertise coupled with the close working relationship with the staff here, could help zoos around the country "because it may end up being the model for how it should be done."
Zookeeper Mike Hoffmann tosses five big perch into the pool by the Alaskan Brown Bears.
Earlier that morning, Hoffmann had lowered the water level, to give the enormous bears a more natural fishing experience.
Normally the two bears cooperate, Hoffmann says, but not today. The male heaves himself out of the pond with a fish clamped firmly in his mouth.
“He’s guarding it; he’s not going to share," he says. "She’s going to go fish her own."
Hoffmann says over time, his colleagues have added the animals they steward to the fish delivery list – most recently the jaguars
“They put the fish in their pond and then they let the jaguars in," he says. "The jaguars, I guess put, on quite a show."
Penguins are next in line.
Zookeeper Rhonda Crenshaw is in charge of the North American small mammals. She says her river otters are loving the program. Crenshaw says she’d love for them to regularly feast on fresh, healthy fish. Right now the School of Freshwater Sciences delivery happens about two days a month.
“They’re very well suited to catch the fish," Crenshaw says. "They have their wide tail that they use to propel through the water and steer and they have their whiskers to find them under water. And they roll on their back like that and then hold it in their little front feet. It’s so cute."
Scientist Fred Binkowski says he's prepared to help build a greater, and even more convenient, supply. He'd like to help the zoo set up its own fish-rearing system. Binkowski points to a bright red concession stand that might be perfect.
Zookeeper Mike Hoffmann restrains his quiet enthusiasm.
His first priority it folding more animals into the program. It's a step by step process; each animal has its own veterinarian and curator, and they must agree to fold fish into their enrichment strategy.
Right now, Hoffmann has a more pressing mission. The harbor seals are waiting for their fish.