By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 19, 2018 at 2:12 PM

You can’t imagine the look of panic and dismay on my kids’ faces the day we walked into the small mammals building at the Milwaukee County Zoo and saw that the otters were gone. Watching Oscar and Buddy frolic in the water tank was always a highlight for us, and for many others, so when the duo died and the zoo moved its new sloth Fezzik into the tank, we were heartbroken. (No offense, Fezzik.)

Recently, the Milwaukee County Zoo officially announced the opening of the new "Otter Passage" exhibit just inside the new west entrance, which opened this spring with a parking lot and entrance area, as well as a snack bar and souvenir shop.

The new North American River Otter exhibit – home to three new 1-year-old female otters named Emerald, Clover and Shamrock – cost $7.9 million and moves the otters outdoors into a nearly 1,700-square-foot exhibit landscaped with rock, grass and mulch.

The frolicking otters now have the run of a 6,000-gallon, 8-foot-deep pool and a 6-foot-deep, 4,000-gallon pool.

A male otter is expected to arrive in the near future, allowing the zoo to create a sustainable breeding colony.

"We really wanted another signature exhibit to welcome guests at the new West Entrance, similar to the Humboldt Penguin Exhibit at the main entrance," Milwaukee County Zoo Director Chuck Wikenhauser said in a statement.

"We were thinking of an animal native to North America and able to stay outside year round, and river otters fit the bill perfectly. Plus the fact they’re just so fun to watch!"

The exhibit has an artificial hollow tree trunk that allows kids to get nose to nose with the otters (through glass, of course), as well as an interactive training panel through which zookeepers can interact with the otters, providing visitors with a look at the animals’ natural behaviors, each cuter than the next.

The new exhibit area also includes an off-exhibit holding facility designed to look like a woodsy cabin but which houses state-of-the-art support systems, including an indoor pool for the otters.

"The key objective of Otter Passage was to provide a great visitor experience with live animals immediately upon entering the Zoo," said John Kemper, vice president at St. Louis-based PGAV Destinations, which designed the exhibit and new entry plaza.

"While in the water, the resident otters are already interacting with the public, swiftly and agilely tracing children’s hand motions through the glass. The new otters are excellent conservation ambassadors, helping to protect native otter populations, especially in Wisconsin."

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in an episode of TV's "Party of Five," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.