The Milwaukee County Zoo will be the first zoo in the nation to build an animal exercise track for public viewing and racing of animals . The one-of-a-kind track will be built as part of the Zoo Interchange project and at viewing levels for vehicles using the Southbound 41 to Westbound 94 ramp that passes through the south end of the zoo parking lot. According to MCZ director Charles “Chuck” Wikenhauser, the track will give animals the chance to run free and promote the zoo in the process. “Have you ever seen a cheetah pace around its tiny enclosure, just waiting for a small child to jump in while chasing a balloon?” asked Chuck. “Those animals want to run, and that’s the opportunity we want to give them.”
The track will consist of a series of surface-level segments connected from the various animal enclosures that lead out to the parking lot, where it will steadily incline to the level of the interstate bridge. Then the track will turn and run alongside the freeway for a quarter-mile before it declines back to its starting point on the south side of the zoo. Lucky motorists may have a chance to race cheetahs, zebras, gazelles, and the newest addition to the zoo: greyhounds. With a planned width of 15 feet for the quarter-mile interstate section, small animals, like dogs, will actually be able to race each other, and the zoo has sought a gambling license for those events. However, the main attraction will obviously be elephants, bears, and other animals running alongside Wisconsin’s busiest interchange.
A decade ago, Scott Walker proposed a water park for the same section of the zoo, but many saw it as not in keeping with the values of a family day at the zoo, learning about animals. This proposal, according to County Executive Chris Abele, fits all the criteria of an educational family adventure. “We’re not dressing monkeys up like humans or forcing elephants to get up on stools,” said Abele. “We want people to see animals at their happiest and most graceful, and all animals like to run. And as animals, humans like to watch other animals run and wager on the winners.”
Getting the animals to cooperate may be the most difficult assignment. While the track will be equipped with a moving treat box capable of speeds of nearly 60 mph, there is no guaranty wild animals will run after a giant slab of moving meat. In addition, while the freeway-side glass will be one-way so that animals cannot see out, the noise of the freeway might frighten animals accustomed to only hearing other animals, parents yelling at kids, and children throwing screaming fits when their ice cream cones drop onto the ground. However, it’s a gamble the zoo and county are willing to take, and construction of the track is well in the works. If successful, other zoos across the country will likely follow suit, but Milwaukee’s unique location allows it to shine when it comes to animals being able to race cars at freeway speeds, which should make the county’s zoo a destination for animal lovers from all over the world for many years to come.
"Innovation in zoos is not something that happens all the time," said Wikenhauser. "It took most of the last century to convince zoos across the world to stop using steel cages. Animals need better exercise than what they get standing around and chasing popcorn once in a while. Have you ever seen a rhinoceros run? Not in a zoo, you haven't. Not until Milwaukee finishes the Zoo Interchange." Residents of Milwaukee have stated that racing animals would be more popular than even the great Samson the Gorilla. In fact, in a recent poll, EVERY SINGLE respondent wanted to see a jaguar race alongside a Jaguar or a cheetah take on a Cougar, Mustang, or Sonata. Zoo staff have said that the new added parking near Highway 100 will not even be close to meeting the "significant" increase in admissions once the racetrack opens. "It's bigger than having the last red panda in the world."