Ocean Connections to leave Milwaukee County Zoo

Zoo cites necessary upgrades and fiscal constraints

A harbor seal swims at Milwaukee County Zoo. Photo courtesy Milwaukee County Zoo Media Room 

Milwaukee County Zoo will close its seal and sea lion exhibit in December, zoo leadership saying it cannot invest the money needed to upgrade the habitat.

The zoo announced last week it will be ending its relationship with Ocean Connections, the nonprofit organization that provides interactive and educational seal and sea lion programming to the zoo.

Both the zoo and the environmental organization cited an outdated habitat and a limited budget for the severed partnership. The salt water pool where two seals and two sea lions live is 38 years old, and updating it could cost millions of dollars.

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Shelley Ballmann, president and CEO of Ocean Connections, said her team is having a hard time maintaining the habitat.

“It’s just starting to give way, it’s starting to break down. We’re starting to see little issues with it,” Ballmann.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums set standards for animal care. Amos Morris, the zoo director, said the seal and sea lion habitat at the zoo does not meet those standards anymore, and he did want to sacrifice the quality of care.

“I can’t have animals staying in facilities that don’t meet modern zoological standards. It affects welfare and well-being, and I refuse to do that,” Morris said.

Ballmann said safety of the animals is her first priority.

“In order to maintain a healthy environment for them, the pool structure also has to be sound. And we’re starting to see that give way. So that is something that we can’t wait until the last minute and be reactive after there’s a problem. We have to be proactive,” Ballman said.

Morris said he didn’t have an estimated budget for renovating the habitat, but said it would cost millions of dollars. Half of the zoo’s budget is set by the county and the rest of it comes from fundraising by the Zoological Society Of Milwaukee.

“We’re obligated to spend our dollars as most efficiently as possible,” Morris said. “The (seal and sea lion) facility is not worth the investment at this time.”

Morris said he is spending money elsewhere. The zoo just finished a fundraiser for a new rhinoceros exhibit. The $22 million project will welcome back the animals that were moved out of the zoo two years ago because the former rhino facility didn’t meet modern zoological standards. Morris hopes a similar fundraising effort in the future may allow sea lions to return to the zoo someday.

Ocean Connections, originally Oceans of Fun, was founded in Milwaukee in 1991 and has been a partner of the zoo ever since its conception. Ballmann started out training dolphins and sea lions before rising to president and CEO. She said she has watched generations of families learn from and be entertained by Ocean Connections.

“This is such a difficult situation. It’s not that we want to leave Milwaukee. Milwaukee’s our home but there’s not a choice,” Ballman said.

The Milwaukee County Zoo is the only place in the state that has California sea lions. Ballmann said it’s the rarity of the animals, interactive performances and conservation education that make Ocean Connections special. After announcing the severed partnership on Facebook, Ballman said she feels encouraged to make it through the next few months.

“I think that the outpour of support — it’s a hug to your heart for all of the work you’ve done for 30 years,” Ballmann said.

Ocean Connections was warned in December 2022 that it could expect changes to its operations.

“Then a few weeks ago, we learned that those challenges were extremely real and we were going to be needing to make decisions in the best interest of our animals,” Ballmann said.

The four animals will be relocated to one of Ocean Connections’ sister facilities in Pennsylvania, Tennessee or South Carolina.

The exhibit will officially close Dec. 3.

“I wish very much that the circumstances were changed. Unfortunately, they’re not within our power to change them, so we’re super thankful for the support,” Ballmann said.

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