Animal Tales

Conservation Here and Around the World

Many of the species at the Milwaukee County Zoo are endangered in the wild. That’s why the Zoological Society’s 2020 annual appeal will raise money to support Zoological Society and Zoo conservation initiatives. Supported efforts include Society programs, Zoo staff research trips and veterinary residency programs. Here are two examples of Zoo staff trips the Society supported in 2019.

Trish Khan: Orangutan Sanctuaries in Indonesia

Trish Khan

Trish Khan, Milwaukee County Zoo curator of primates and small mammals, visited several orangutan rescue sites in Borneo and Sumatra in summer 2019. Photo submitted by Trish Khan

Twenty years ago, Trish Khan’s life changed when she traveled to Indonesia to learn about orangutan conservation. “That was the start of my passion for orangutans,” says Khan, curator of primates and small mammals at the Milwaukee County Zoo. In July she returned to Indonesia, and what she saw was just as impactful. “The situation there was horrible 20 years ago, but that was just a drop in the bucket compared to now.”

Orangutans are critically endangered on their island homes of Borneo and Sumatra, located mainly in Indonesia. Their forest habitat is rapidly disappearing, spurred on in recent years by the proliferation of palm oil plantations. Palm oil is found in many household items and packaged foods. Khan has been running the “MOMs: Missing Orangutan Mothers” campaign at the Milwaukee County Zoo for more than a decade, raising money and awareness for orangutan conservation on Mother’s Day each year. She was invited on a trip to Indonesia by Richard Zimmerman, founder of Orangutan Outreach, to view the results of her efforts.


Trish Khan photographed this young orangutan at Nyaru Menteng, a rescue site in Borneo.

Over two weeks, Khan visited several sanctuaries that care for orphaned orangutans and train them to be released in the wild when possible. “We saw where our money is going, what their needs are and how we can support them,” she says. She helped celebrate the grand opening of a new visitor center at one sanctuary, with schoolrooms to help educate local children and a research area. She watched young orangutans learn skills such as climbing, finding food and building nests. Khan even shared some of the Milwaukee County Zoo’s enrichment practices with sanctuary staff to give them ideas about how to train and engage their animals.

But her experiences weren’t always so uplifting. “As we were traveling, we saw a lot of the deforestation and the devastation from illegal mining.” She also saw the results of forest fires, which have become more extreme because of drought. She saw firsthand how dangerous, grueling and expensive it is to rescue, care for and release orangutans. “You think of all the time it takes to care for two orangutans every day at the Zoo, and then they have more than 300. It puts it in perspective.”

She returned more committed than ever to helping orangutans. “I definitely have a better understanding of what messaging needs to be out there.” She hopes to work with conservation organizations on efforts such as bringing their veterinarians to the U.S. to learn from veterinarians here or even sending zookeepers from the U.S. to Indonesia on short-term conservation trips. She is inspired by the amazing conservation workers who have dedicated their lives to caring for these animals. “If they can keep going, with all the obstacles they have, I have no right to give up here.”

Alex Waier: Humboldt Penguin Research in Peru

Alex Waier

Alex Waier, curator of birds and family farm. Photo by Stacy Kaat

In October, Alex Waier, curator of birds and the family farm, went to Lima, Peru, for a week to participate in a population and habitat viability assessment for the Humboldt penguin. The assessment brought together, for the first time in more than 20 years, researchers, government officials, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders to discuss the penguins’ conservation status and develop an action plan.

Humboldt penguins live on the coast and islands of Chile and Peru. They face threats from fishing nets, introduced species such as cats and dogs, and strong weather patterns caused by El Niño and climate change, which can destroy their habitats. Waier attended the assessment meetings as coordinator of the Humboldt Penguin Species Survival Plan® through the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. The plan aims to keep the penguin population in North American zoos healthy and help Humboldts in the wild. The participants spent the first two days comparing data on the penguin population and its threats. They concluded that the population continues to decline and, without direct action, could be extinct within 80 years. Then they broke into four working groups – communication/collaboration, fisheries, population biology/demography and human disturbance – to discuss ideas to mitigate the threats.

Humboldt penguins

Humboldt penguins stand on the rocky shoreline in Peru, South America.

Waier joined the communication group. “It seems like there is considerable room to improve the awareness of the plight of Humboldt penguins in country, especially in the school curricula,” he says. The participants want to create educational materials such as flyers and interpretive signs to teach Chileans and Peruvians about Humboldt penguins and how to support them. Other groups suggested steps such as working with fisheries to prevent penguins from becoming entangled in nets, regulated fishing quotas and blackout dates during nesting seasons, and continued work with the government to manage the harvest of penguin guano for fertilizer. (Humboldt penguins also use guano, or droppings, to build their nests.)

He returned to the U.S. with plenty to do. Waier volunteered to create a listserv for communication among the stakeholders and help write the communications section of the group’s final report, which is expected in spring. He also hopes to connect with university and governmental sources in Chile and Peru to learn more about the research already taking place and how zoos can support it. “By connecting with researchers in the field, we can find out what they need from us,” he says. “One thing zoos can do really well is fundraise.”

Help us support future conservation work! The Zoological Society’s 2020 Annual Appeal seeks to raise money for conservation initiatives of the Zoological Society and the Zoo.

This article appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Alive magazine.