Middleton Resident Is Zoo's First Ever Female Director

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MTT News Desk's picture
By: 
Katherine Perreth
Ronda Schwetz, Henry Vilas Zoo director.

Ronda Schwetz, Henry Vilas Zoo director, has had a lifelong affinity for Madison’s popular menagerie. Growing up in McFarland, now residing in the Town of Middleton, she remembers well the exact location where her dream job at the free zoo was born.

“I was by the rhinos – the exact same ones we have today, in fact – when I first thought, ‘I want to do this some day,’” she recalled. The 43-year-old is the first female director in the 102-year-old zoo’s history. She took charge of the facility in June of 2012.

She held her first position at this zoo in 1991, as an intern while at UW-Stevens Point, in a program that continues today. After graduating in 1992 with a double major – psychology and biology- and a minor in Captive Wildlife Management, Schwetz moved to Chippewa Falls. Her stint at the Irvine Park Zoo lasted several years, gaining her valuable hands-on knowledge.

“As the only zookeeper for about 200 animals, on days I couldn’t be there the maintenance man would take over the keeper’s responsibilities, feeding and caring for the animals,” she said. It was also there she met her husband. On their first date, he said he had once talked with her extensively outside a cage as she hosed down a bear, she said, although she still has no recollection of their first meeting.

In 1998 she moved to Florida to be a member of the opening crew of Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, she said. During her eight years there, she first took on the roles of nursery keeper and animal handler for shows, then became a zoological manager.

“It was then, in 2000, I switched from fulltime zookeeper to more administration, supervising 16 keepers,” Schwetz recalled. Still, she called the job “pretty hands-on as the primary point person” if one of the animals became ill.

In 2005 the Denver Zoo hired her as a primate supervisor, and she worked with great apes for the first time, she said. She promptly fell in love with them, specifically one orangutan named Robin.

“Primates are a whole different ballgame,” she explained. “They’re so smart and complex, you really have to keep thinking on your feet because they know what you’re doing before you do.”

Noting the field is competitive and that top jobs are rarely available, Schwetz never expected to land a zookeeper job here, she said. But a few years ago she was “thrilled” to be selected for the open position of deputy director at the Henry Vilas Zoo. In October of 2010 she made both her own and her husband’s extended families happy, finally answering their question: “When are you moving back?”

After serving a year as second-in-command, and seven months as interim zoo director, one year ago Dane County executive Joe Parisi tapped her for her current position.

“Ronda has brought deep experience and tremendous resources to Dane County that have helped transform our zoo for the better,” Parisi said at that time. “Her commitment to animal preservation, public education, and sustainability on zoo grounds continues to make our zoo a nationally recognized leader in conservation, and a premiere destination for area families to enjoy.”

Animal conservation and preservation of natural habitats are close to Schwetz’s heart. During her time in Denver, a zoo known for its strong involvement with conservation, she joined a national steering committee responsible for the Orangutan Species Survival Plan, she said.

She continues as field advisor, and has established ties with six orangutan rehab facilities and zoos in Asia. In 2008, even before she joined the committee, she set up a partnership with two rehab facilities in Borneo, Nyaru Mentang and Samboja Lestari. But her work has branched out from just serving primates.

“We started with orangutans, but saw the need for other animals. Last year, in Borneo, we built a three-story high platform for recovering sun bears,” she said. Zookeepers in the U.S. focus on captive care, while in Asia the expertise is rehabbing animals to release back into the wild, Schwetz explained. However, animals that can’t be re-released because of illnesses, such as hepatitis or tuberculosis, then remain at a facility. That’s where the U.S. expertise comes in, she said.

The recently developed Henry Vilas Zoo keeper exchange program allows knowledge and training to be shared between Asia and Madison. Exchange keepers hold workshops and also bring medical supplies, she said.

This August nine staff members will travel to Matang Wildlife Centre in Malaysia for two weeks, and two of their keepers will come here, Schwetz said. One enrichment project her staff members are eager to share is training animals, she said. For example, “if an animal is sick, how to train the animal to hold out its arm for injections rather than dart it,” she explained.

Once, during her stay at a rainforest rehab facility, two orangutans escaped to neighboring trees. Staff tried coaxing them back, even climbing the trees in futility as the pair jumped from tree to tree when humans came close.

“Then, after 15 minutes, like a buzzer went off, they came down on their own, and held out their hands to the caretakers. They walked hand-in-hand back into the enclosure with no problem,” she said with a laugh. Schwetz said orangutans, an endangered species, are on the level of intelligence with chimpanzees, but she believes they’re actually smarter. She concedes some would argue with her.

Recently, the zoo went through accreditation, something that occurs every five years. The national accreditation agency, Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), regularly lists Henry Vilas Zoo as one of the top 10 percent of zoos and aquariums in the nation, Schwetz said. It is also one of only ten free zoos in the U.S.

“[AZA] is kind of like the Better Business Bureau of zoos,” she added, noting the zoo will be notified of its status in September. She expects the news to be great since she’s already received “a fantastic verbal report, due to our staff and their hard work,” she said.

In addition to pride in her staff, Schwetz said she’s most proud of the newly opened Animal Health Center. “It’s such an amazing building,” she said. “Beautiful to look at, but it’s also functional.”

She is especially pleased that the facility was built so quickly and that several veterinarians have called it “one of the best designed animal hospitals they’ve ever seen.” She views the facility as the necessary foundation for a higher level of animal care that will allow the zoo to move forward to the Arctic Passage phase, she said.

A high level of animal care has always been a top priority of the zoo. In fact, Schwetz credits that care as the reason the zoo is filled with a geriatric population. Recently, the zoo lost animals living well beyond standard ages in captivity, a 42-year-old female rhino, and a 30-year-old polar bear. Typical life spans in captivity are mid-30s and 24, respectively, she said. The remaining rhino is 43. “We have old animals here,” Schwetz stated. “Many of our animals are at the tail end of their lifespan, no pun intended.”

But new animals are always joining the menagerie, either through exchange, purchase or birth. Currently, there are prairie dog puppies, a new penguin chick, and an older penguin chick residing with adults, she said. She’s very excited to be on board when the “teenage” orangutans from Borneo, Datu and Kawan, are ready to breed.

“The plan is to take Kawan off birth control in two years, they’re a little too immature for babies right now,” she explained. “We expect offspring to follow.”

Sustainability is part of the zoo master plan, Schwetz said. The Animal Health Care center sports a rain garden outside, and energy efficient windows, insulation, and a “green” roof. The recently built red barn boasts geothermal wells and solar panels, she said. As part of the master plan, the zoo will be addressing visitor space, parking needs, and combining continent-specific exhibits, she said. Focus on exhibiting species from the same continent will aid in “zoo flow” and greater education for the patrons, she observed.

We’re looking at the African side,” Schwetz noted. “We have two new giraffes, Eddie and Wally, for the Leave It To Beaver fans out there.”

Schwetz said there are numerous volunteer opportunities for the general public. From meet and greet, to informational show and tell Biofact Carts, to handling and showing animals, raking leaves, and even office work. Two funds support animals both here and in the wild: Animal Welfare Fund and Conservation Fund, respectively.

Schwetz and her husband have two children attending Elm Lawn Elementary in Middleton. Her kids love having a head zookeeper for a mom, she said, “Especially on take your kids to work day!”

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