Welcome to January. The holidays are over and for the next four months, it's just another winter in Milwaukee. There are no festivals, no jazz in the parks, no lakefront activity.
It seems there is nothing to do, but before you get on a first-name basis with the staff at the video store, think about another way to combat that cabin fever.
Many people don't realize it, but the Milwaukee County Zoo is open 365 days a year and there is just as much animal activity going on in January as there is in June. Plus, with almost no crowds, a stroll through the Zoo grounds on a crisp winter day can be very refreshing.
The Zoo is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. throughout the winter, so bundle up, grab a map, and off you go.
Just through the main Zoo entrance is the Taylor Family Humboldt Penguin exhibit. If you can get past their pungent -- but natural -- smell, these little birds are a blast to watch. Although in the wild Humboldt penguins are found in the temperate climates near Chile and Peru, they are able to withstand colder weather due to their habit of swimming in the cold Humboldt Current in the Pacific. At the Zoo, they play in their outdoor pool like it is bath water all year around. You'll know when it's feeding time for the penguins by the loud, lion-like growls they make when food is in sight, but unlike a lion, they don't rip their lunch to shreds with razor-sharp teeth; they swallow six-inch smelts whole!
If you continue to walk along the boardwalk behind the penguin exhibit, it will take you to the Peck Welcome Center. Connected to this building immediately to the left is the indoor Primates of the World exhibit. The group to greet you is the Zoo's gorilla colony -- Cassius, Femelle, Maji, Linda, Hodari and Ngajj. Traveling deeper into the indoor jungle you'll find the playful tamarins, the brightly colored faces of the male mandrills and Tommy, the muppet-looking, dread-locked orangutan. You'll either find him admiring himself in his mirror -- as all great apes are known to do -- or swinging his large body from the ceiling.
The adjoining exhibit -- the Stearns Family Apes of Africa -- is home to a particular point of pride for the Zoo. The largest group of bonobos in captivity lives at the Milwaukee County Zoo and one of the leading bonobo-conservation groups in the world is the Zoological Society of Milwaukee, which has a research station in the African Congo. Currently the Zoo has 20 bonobos, with 1-year-old female, Faith, being the newest addition. Although the Zoo's group is thriving, bonobos -- who share over 98 percent of their genetic makeup with humans -- are an endangered species.
Around the corner from the apes is another indoor exhibit with an exciting new addition. The Aquatic & Reptile Center recently welcomed Digger, the Zoo's newest Grand Cayman Blue Iguana. Milwaukee is only one of eight zoos in the country to hold this extremely rare reptile species.
Down on the southern most end of the grounds are the animals that thoroughly enjoy a good Milwaukee winter. Toughing it out outdoors are the black bears, elk, grizzly bears and caribou. Completely fit for the freeze, caribou -- known as reindeer in Europe -- are used to life in the arctic planes, so a Wisconsin winter seems fairly tame in comparison. If you catch them soon, you can still be able to see their enormous antlers before they shed them in late winter.
On you way to big cats, don't forget to stop at the outdoor Sea Lion exhibit. Two harbor seals -- Pender and Sydney -- have recently relocated to Milwaukee from the Alaska SeaLife Center.
Unfortunately, the giraffe exhibit is currently closed for renovations until this summer, when it reopens as the Miller Brewing Company Giraffe Experience. The new facility will be significantly larger than the old one and will feature a deck that will allow zoogoers to get face to face with the giraffes and even feed them.
More than making up for the temporary loss of giraffes is the impressive Florence Mila Borchert Big Cat Country, which opened in summer 2005. The completely renovated feline facility is an indoor and outdoor home to African Lions, Siberian tigers, snow leopards, cheetahs, jaguars and hyenas. The building is warm, with realistic animal environments, an open kitchen to view food preparation and educational alcoves with video of behind-the-scenes zookeeper activity.
To the east of the big cat exhibit is Wolf Woods, home to the Zoo's five adult timber wolves -- Nemat, Niijii, Nikan, Hickoro and Koda. Their names all mean "friend" in different Native American languages. You can learn about the wolves as you walk the boardwalk through the trees or just watch them play from inside the log cabin viewing area.
On your way back to the main Zoo entrance you'll see the big red barn of the newly renovated Northwestern Mutual Family Farm. The farm debuted its makeover in summer 2005 with a new indoor animal encounter building, a chick hatchery, a new playground and more frequent animal demonstrations, such as cow milking, horse grooming and calf feeding inside the Dairy Complex barn.
The Zoo's ever popular Safari Train and Vintage Carousel still run on the weekends during the winter months, and this year, there is yet another ride option on the grounds. The Safari Sky Glider has been added to transport you over the animals, from the camels to the black bears. The Zoo hosts a number of "Family Free Days" throughout the year, and this winter/spring they take place on Jan. 7, Feb. 4, March 3, and April 9.
The Zoo's Web site is milwaukeezoo.org.
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”