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The new Vilas zookeeper: Director Ronda Schwetz sets a higher standard for care and conservation
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Credit:Narayan Mahon

You can't miss the orangutans.

Photos, drawings and large handprints of the great apes are everywhere in the office belonging to Ronda Schwetz, who became Henry Vilas Zoo's director in June.

Schwetz became enamored of orangutans about seven years ago, while serving as the primate curator at the Denver Zoo. There she met Robin, an orangutan whose calm energy stood in contrast to the more volatile gorillas, and who reminded her of her twin toddlers.

"Robin would just sit there and look at you," recalls Schwetz. "He just wanted to hang out with you."

Schwetz, 42, also became moved by the species' plight. Sumatran orangutans teeter on the verge of extinction, with just 7,000 left in the wild. Bornean orangutans are also endangered, with approximately 50,000 remaining in the wild. Schwetz is active with the orangutan species survival plan, serving as the field adviser and leading trips to Malaysia to help both wild and captive animals. Species survival plans, in use since the 1980s, involve international cooperation among zoos to preserve diverse populations of threatened or endangered animals.

Now at Vilas Zoo, Schwetz maintains a special bond with the two resident orangutans, Dotu and Kawan. But she makes it a priority to regularly visit all of the 600 animals on the zoo's 28 acres.

She says she could do her job without these visits, but thinks it's important to remain in contact with the animals.

"I always loved animals, and I always wanted to help individual animals," says Schwetz. "As I've [been] in this field longer, it went from wanting to help individuals to wanting to help populations."

Schwetz spent years working hands-on with animals in captivity and in the wild and is a strong advocate for conservation. Henry Vilas Zoo and its staff already contribute to conservation programs for poison dart frogs, South African penguins, red pandas and other species, but Schwetz hopes to expand the programs and promote them more.

Another priority of hers is better medical care for the zoo's animals. Construction began in October on a new animal health center, her first big project at the zoo.

Schwetz's focus on conservation and animal welfare is part of a global shift in recent years in zoo orientation and practice.

"A big challenge is trying to explain to the public what zoos are now," she says. "We obviously want to be a place where people come and can enjoy time with their families and be entertained. But we also want them to know that we are a conservation organization. It's not just a place where we have animals, and they're in a box."

The reality of life and death

Schwetz grew up on Lake Kegonsa, just south of Madison, rescuing turtles and birds and releasing them back into the wild. She learned to care for animals this way, but she also learned important lessons about life.

"There were times they didn't make it, and that was really good for me to understand, the whole reality of life and death," says Schwetz.

She dealt with those realities this summer at the Vilas Zoo, when two animals died and a harbor seal pup was born in May to some of the oldest parents on record. The lioness named Vilas died of cancer in June, and Gracie, a 41-year-old white rhinoceros, died in July. Schwetz remembers seeing Gracie and her mate, George, at this same zoo when she was a child.

"Some of these flamingos have been here since 1967. So these were the same flamingos that were here when I was a kid," she says. "I came to this zoo a lot as a child. And I remember being as young as 5 and saying, 'I want to do this when I grow up.'"

In fact, her first zoo job was as an intern here in 1991 while still a student at UW-Stevens Point. Schwetz received her bachelor's there in 1992 in biology and psychology, with a minor in captive wildlife.

Vilas Zoo was a different place in the '60s and '70s when Schwetz was a child. So were most other zoos.

Zoos in the United States date to the 1800s, when they offered a more permanent alternative to circus shows. Animals were often captured in the wild and brought back to zoos to entertain the public and promote natural science exploration. Many of the living conditions for the captive animals at that time would not measure up to today's standards, with their small pen sizes and lack of exercise and mental stimulation for animals.

Many zoos today strive to reach or exceed standards set out by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) in order to be accredited. The Henry Vilas Zoo will face reaccreditation in 2013, its 102nd year.

Standards now include efforts toward conservation and careful attention to the welfare of captive animals.

Zoos today "transformed themselves into modern centers of conservation," says Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "There's a continuing push to make a direct connection to conservation in everything zoos do."

Schwetz uses AZA standards, guidance from various species survival plans, and her own network of colleagues as resources to guide animal care at the Vilas Zoo. When the harbor seal pup was born, the zoo had not seen such a birth since 1998, so they sought outside expertise.

"Now that [Schwetz is] on board, we see this partnership with other zoos, which is really important," says Anna Reynolds, executive director of Friends of the Zoo, the fundraising branch. Reynolds says these relationships come into play in a number of ways, whether bringing a new animal to the zoo or coordinating conservation efforts. "She has that expertise."

Spreading the word

Two larger-than-life green eyes stared out into a small audience at the zoo's visitor center in November. The screen set the scene for a fundraiser for wild Amur tigers.

Zoo staff, volunteers, guests and staff from other zoos in the Midwest mingled, ate hors d'oeuvres and competed in a silent auction that included a canvas "painted" by a tiger. Large white paw prints swiped across the purple background on this popular item.

Schwetz was a gregarious presence at the fundraiser, where she seemed to know almost everyone. One of her jobs this night was to watch the clock on the silent auction. She laughed when confiding that she is notorious at such events for hovering over items she wants for herself.

Dr. Tara Harris, director of conservation at the Minnesota Zoo, presented the evening's lecture, subtitled "The dramatic decline of an iconic species, and the efforts to save it."

This type of event, which raises funds for and promotes awareness about conservation, is still new to the Vilas Zoo.

"We really like doing this," Schwetz told the audience. "We'd like to do more. Spread the word."

Prior to 2010, when Schwetz joined the staff as deputy director, the Vilas Zoo supported the Red Panda Species Survival Plan and partnered with Polar Bear International, the Costa Rican Amphibian Research Center and penguin conservation efforts in South Africa.

Reynolds of the Friends group says that Schwetz is working to expand financial and staff support to more species survival programs and better promote the conservation programs.

In working for a zoo that does not charge admission, Schwetz and her staff have limited funds to support conservation efforts, but they can provide nonmonetary support. The zoo supports keeper Eric Anderson's research in Costa Rica on frogs. And Schwetz still goes out into the field to fix cages and deliver medical supplies to conservation programs in Malaysia and Indonesia.

She took her first conservation trip to Mongolia in 2006, filling in for a conservation biologist from the Denver Zoo. She arrived in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, at midnight, exhausted after four connecting flights. She was alone, apprehensive and without a cell phone. It was a rough introduction, but Schwetz stayed on to track sheep and ibex.

"Once I survived that experience and loved it, I knew I could do more," she says.

Now Schwetz leads field expeditions to such places as Borneo and NyaruMenteng (also known as Orangutan Island to viewers of the Animal Planet show of the same name). They help locals rehabilitate and release wild orangutans and improve care for injured animals that can't be released. They fix cages and set up hammocks and shade for the captive great apes in the equatorial regions they call home.

Schwetz's interest in conservation is shared by zoo staff. Education curator Erin Flynn says conservation efforts are a way to "pay it forward" to help animals in the wild.

Before joining the Vilas Zoo, Flynn worked as a keeper in Omaha and did doctorate research in Australia, where she worked in the field with marsupials. She has returned to Australia on her own time to work on Tasmanian devil conservation.

When working with children at Vilas Zoo, Flynn stresses that recycling and conserving energy are small steps that can be taken to help sustain natural habitats for animals throughout the world.

"It's all about empowering people," says Flynn. "You can make a difference."

Enrichment for animals

Controversy engulfed the Vilas Zoo in 1999 when a local activist raised concerns that its elephants did not receive the standard of care required by the AZA. The animals spent 16 hours a day chained up, endured temperatures that were considered too cold by AZA standards, and experienced trouble with their feet due to moisture on the floor, according to an investigation by Madison activist Julie Borodin.

The zoo transferred the elephants before receiving a citation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They haven't been replaced.

Vilas and zoos around the world are reevaluating their capacity to provide better care for the animals.

Schwetz knows that Vilas Zoo faces space, budget and climate limitations and expects to focus more on northern species of animals in the future.

The two endangered Amur tigers at the Vilas Zoo, for instance, usually live in far eastern Russia at a latitude, and in a climate, similar to that of Madison.

"You're never going to see dolphins at this institution, because it doesn't make sense," says Schwetz. "In the past, especially going back decades, it was more about what was available, what could you get. We want to focus on [species survival plan] animals and helping preserve the population."

Other improvements at the zoo in recent years include better cages, vet care and mental and physical enrichment activities for the animals, says Kurt Sladky, clinical associate professor of Zoological Medicine at UW-Madison.

"People are constantly looking at the enclosures and trying to make them bigger and more complicated for the animals," says Stafford. "Lighting is a big thing, especially with the amphibians and reptiles. It's becoming more complicated as we learn more of what the animals need."

All the animals in the zoo require enrichment, even the fish and the stingrays, says Schwetz. The keepers develop exercises to stimulate the animals. The chimpanzees play with a specially designed iPad application. The tigers follow scent trails around their enclosures, and at other times are challenged to lick through frozen "bloodsicles" to get to the sanguine treat.

"The idea is to give them enough attention, but also to get them out there, so that they can be seen," says Schwetz, adding that the red pandas, chimpanzees and orangutans get enrichment by watching the parade of visitors pass by.

But Schwetz says they take animals off display for health or breeding reasons.

"When Ronda came in, she really recognized the health center as a key issue to have," says Sladky, noting the center prioritizes animal health care over exhibition. "It's an animal welfare issue." The zoo veterinarian currently works out of a small room in the administration building.

"The health center is going to allow us to take a lot better medical care of the animals," says Stafford. "We currently have to transport an animal 20 miles for a surgery. And we won't have to do that anymore, so that animal won't have to deal with that stress."

More excitemen

Schwetz is one of 20 or so female zoo directors at North American acredited zoos, and she's Vilas Zoo's first female director. Although women still remain the minority among directors, the field has seen an influx of women as veterinarians and zookeepers.

Flynn, who's 28, says she's part of the recent wave of women in the field. She attributes the trend to the fact that more women attend college now than ever before.

"Now it's primarily a female-driven field, kind of like veterinary medicine," says Flynn. "The work is physical, but we can do it. You definitely still want the guys around, there's no doubt about that," she adds with a laugh.

Stafford says since Schwetz took over "there just seems to be more excitement around the place. It's been a very positive change that she's brought with her.... There's a lot more communication between the entire staff than there had been. That's her management style, and it's very nice."

That enthusiasm extends beyond the gates of the zoo. Schewtz recently delivered $1,100 to Friends of the Henry Vilas Zoo, meant exclusively for orangutan conservation efforts. The money was donated by a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo via one of Schwetz's orangutan species survival plan colleagues. The Vilas Zoo keeps a conservation fund, in which donors can direct their gifts to specific animals or programs.

Schwetz and her team hope to constantly improve the state of the zoo for animals and visitors.

As Flynn puts it, "When I started here people would say, 'Oh, Vilas, it's such a good, free zoo.' I would like it to be, 'It's such a good zoo, I can't believe it's free.' That's what we're working on."

And Flynn is ready to follow Schwetz's lead to achieve that goal.

"Ronda is bringing passion, vision, leadership," says Flynn. "We're totally on board and inspired and ready to go."

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