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Ochsner Park Zoo

It has always seemed a little ominous, the 19th century brick house standing lonely astride a hill in Baraboo’s Ochsner Park. Shrouded by trees and bushes, it helps to wall off a wolf habitat on the east. To the south of the aging house of some note, it backs up to a small zoo.

A wolf habitat in town? A zoo? In Baraboo? You’d expect a zoo only in larger cities, but in Baraboo? In fact, most of Wisconsin’s registered zoos are found in cities such as Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay and Racine. All have traditional zoos, with a varying assortment of creatures, but so does the city of Baraboo.

There is a Wikipedia definition of zoos, namely places where as few as one or two species are kept. By that definition, the International Crane Foundation is listed on the Internet as another zoo in the Baraboo area. If you go out a little farther, there is the Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue in Rock Springs, with lions and tigers. By a similar definition, Circus World also maintains a zoo of sorts for three months each summer. That’s four zoos in our area.

The fact is, however, that the local zoo that maintains a supporting membership and adheres to the rules and regulations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, thus qualifying it to be listed officially as a Wisconsin zoo. The board of directors, namely the Parks and Recreation Commission, supervises the operation in close cooperation with the Friends of the Zoo.

This is a volunteer organization currently headed by Kandie Beckwith and famed for its annual Zoo Crew Pizza Day in cooperation with the folks at Pizza Hut. City funding is modest considering the size and scope of the zoo. Private donations and bequests have been generous in the past, also.

The zoo had its modest beginning sometime around 1926, for an old color postcard shows two of what look like makeshift pens perched on the lawn near the northeast corner of Ochsner Park. One housed a bear. There was a zoo commission, headed by such well-known Baraboo names as Frank Herfort, F.E. Morey, Herman Grotophorst, R.E. Schultz and William Powers. Grotophorst had already gifted the park with a band shell, still standing in 2013.

A 1953 News-Republic article states that by then the park boasted five deer, five black bears, plus goats, a badger, a raccoon and a deodorized skunk. In addition, there were rabbits, guinea pigs, Canadian geese and a variety of more common farmyard denizens. Longtime Superintendent Clifford Campbell announced that soon there would be monkeys to replace the death of a 14-year monkey resident.

The zoo was started in 1926 by Clifford Campbell, and he served until sometime after 1953. Today its management is in the capable hands of Alice Schellenberger, with additional help during the summer months. The bears now reside in greatly enhanced quarters. Also in the zoo are two each of wolfs, llamas and monkeys plus a lynx, bobcat, deer, and many other species. Especially enjoyable are the burrowing rodents.

So what about the mysterious and historical house looming over all of this, as mentioned in the first paragraph? It has its own history and article, which will follow in a week or so. Meantime, visit this small and intimate zoo, a facility usually reserved for larger cities.

Dr. Robert Dewel is a retired dentist and longtime News Republic columnist.