Ochsner Zoo: Naturally

Ochsner Park Zoo
Photograph provided by Ochsner Park Zoo

The purpose of zoos has evolved significantly over the centuries. From a show of humankind’s limited dominion over nature to a facility for scientific research, questions of value and ethics have accompanied each installation with regards to the boarding and treatment of their residents. Contemporary zoo models now focus heavily on education, and Ochsner Zoo has designed its exhibits around immersion, health, and conservation.

“We’ve been expanding the animal exhibits because we wanted more space,” says Mike Hardy, Department of Parks, Recreation & Forestry director. “And we wanted more natural-type exhibits so when people come in, they see a little bit more of what the animals’ environments might look like.” Native prairie grasses have replaced areas once filled with mowed turfgrass, and some exhibits give visitors the sense they are looking through the wooded and grassy environments they’d expect to find respective species in.

Prairie grasses aren’t just for looks; they double as pollinator gardens, creating opportunity for a discussion on the importance of pollinator species as well as rain gardens, even inspiring some visitors to create their own at home. They’re also used to filter the water for the otter; bear; and, most importantly, beaver exhibits. “The beavers are one of our dirtier animals,” says Mike. “They drag a lot of stuff into the pool, so the pool gets really dirty. This is a really important filtration system. … We don’t have any sand filters or chemical filters.”

Finding multipurpose elements to add to the zoo is a necessity given their small footprint. Of course, the small size brings up valid concerns involving the square footage of the exhibits, but Ochsner has addressed the issue rather resourcefully. “Some people ask about mixing species, and that’s one thing our zookeepers are really good about—doing the research as far as what species can we have together safely.” The black bear is housed with the artic fox. The pig lives with the goats. And the largest installation has deer, sandhill cranes, and other species you’d find in Wisconsin. “The nice thing about having mixed-species exhibits is that’s how they are out in the wild.”

Another thing visitors notice is the use of windows on some of the newer exhibits. “The thing with glass, we were able to take away that double fence, and that gave the animals more space. And then the other thing the glass did is we can do some planting on the outside, so it makes it look larger as well.” The result further speaks to the zoo’s mission of education, moving away from being a place where people gawk at the animals.

Taking a nature-center approach to the entire zoo works in the interests of visitors and animals alike. At Ochsner, it means starting a conversation on local wildlife. Due to the ease of obtaining some species indigenous to the area, the zoo can use their facility to help animals in need. The artic fox was a rescue as were the wolves. Many other species at Ochsner could not survive in the wild due to debilitating injuries. This overall experience is more a trip through North American habitats versus traveling the world, as is the case of larger zoos.

“Being a free zoo, we don’t have a lot of money to work with, but basically this is the image of the city—the image of our department,” says Mike. “We have about 35,000 to 38,000 annual visitors. Being a municipal-run zoo, we’re looking at a lot of things. … One of the things we’ve noticed when we watch people come in is the entrances that we’ve had in the past haven’t been real well signed.” Many changes are still being made to make navigation more intuitive. Paying attention to how people flow and interact with signage has given staff what they need to use paths to direct more-natural movement from exhibit to exhibit rather than having big areas of random exploration, which enables the zoo to provide more room to its residents.

The entire zoo feels like an extension of Wisconsin’s education-minded approach to the natural world. “With Aldo Leopold, and the Crane Foundation, and Devil’s Lake, and Mirror Lake, and all the state parks, people are just very conservation minded around here.” The design itself provides a sense of place within a sense of place, accurately recreating animal habitats within Baraboo and Sauk County that mostly exist within the Midwest, and children and adults leave with a greater appreciation for our state’s ecosystems.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor and writer for Home Elements & Concepts.

Ochsner Park Zoo
903 Park Street
Baraboo, WI 53913