CHIPPEWA FALLS — For the past two decades, Jennifer London has doted after the animals in the Irvine Park zoo. She has made sure they were fed, cleaned their messes, cared for them when they were sick, celebrated the births and mourned the deaths.
“I tend to favor the ones who need me the most,” London said. “I give them a little bit more attention, because they need it.”
London, 62, has decided to retire, with her final day on Jan. 15. Her mother in Pittsburgh is ailing, and she’s opted to retire and return to her hometown. But it wasn’t an easy decision.
“I know all the animals like me, and appreciate me,” she said. “It means a lot. It does pull on your heartstrings. I love the relationship with the animals, and seeing I am making a difference for them.”
London said everyone loves the lemurs, but she also adores some of the other more-threatening animals.
“The hyenas are actually pretty sweet; the way they look at you, their eyes are really soft,” she said.
Her least favorite job? Gathering all the ducks from a pond every night in the summer months and getting them indoors. They run from her, and sometimes head up a nearby hill to escape.
“They have to come inside; we do have predators that would get them,” she said.
Long-time Chippewa Falls Parks Director Dick Hebert, who retired in March, praised the work London has done in her career here.
“She was obviously very passionate about her job,” Hebert said. “The city of Chippewa Falls was so fortunate she stayed here. She came with a lot of experience, and she took a lot of pride in her work.”
Hebert said it is clear how much London enjoyed being around the animals.
“From spending so many hours with the animals, she had a close attachment with them,” Hebert said. “She took our zoo to another level, as far as the training and care of the animals.”
Chippewa Falls Mayor Greg Hoffman said London was a professional who knew her job well.
“She’s a knowledgeable employee,” Hoffman said. “She had a sincere love and concern for the animals.”
Hoffman said the next challenge is finding a good replacement. The city is taking applications for the job. The city budgets about $150,000 annually for the zoo. That pays for a full-time zookeeper, a part-time worker, food, vitamins, testing and other expenses.
Improved, larger exhibits
During her 21 years here, London has worked to expand the zoo and obtain larger, safer exhibits for the animals. When she arrived, the bobcats, bears and cougars were in small structures that didn’t allow the predatory animals much room to move. The first bear cage constructed in Irvine Park was in 1909. The small animals building was constructed in 1914, and was rebuilt in 1962. However, those aging exhibits were considered unsafe for the animals and the zoo workers, and it wasn’t easy to see the animals.
In 2002, the Chippewa Falls Parks Board voted to build the three new displays at a cost of about $1.2 million, which was raised through private donations. The bear exhibit, which opened in 2005, is about 5,000 square feet. The cougar display, which opened in 2008, is about 2,600 square feet in size and now houses two tigers.
The final exhibit, which opened in 2010, is about 2,000 square feet; it originally housed bobcats but now features two hyenas. The new exhibits, with glass windows, allow the public to stand close to the animals and view their habitat. New glass panels were installed earlier this year in several of the windows into the exhibits.
In June 2016, the new, 9,400-square-foot small animals building opened as part of a $3.9 million zoo improvement project. It houses the Capuchin monkey, lemurs, coatimundi and maras. London assisted in providing ideas for the building, making sure it was designed with safety in mind.
“I was thinking of what we could do for efficiency,” she said. “That was my goal.”
The coatimundi, similar to raccoons, are carnivores. She’s also cautious around the monkeys.
“The Capuchins, they are so smart, you have to watch where they are running,” she said.
London graduated from UW-Stevens Point in 1999 with a degree in environmental education and minors in captive wildlife and museum techniques. She worked at a zoo in Marshfield before coming here, and she initally planned to stay perhaps five years. However, she stayed because she had invested so much time into seeing each of the new exhibits get funded and built, and she wanted to see the projects come to fruition.
“I really wanted to see it work, because the park has so much potential,” she said. “That was another part of me staying. I wanted to see the progress. I could see the snowball starting.”
During her tenure, London has seen numerous births in the zoo, as the lemurs, coatimundi, maras and bison all have offspring. In general, newborn animals are shipped out of the park as soon as they are able to part from their mother, particularly if they are males. This is because the adult males often become territorial and aggressive. For instance, the two bison born in spring 2016 were later removed.
While she has loved her job, she also dealt with the sadness of losing animals. In recent years, a Capuchin monkey and a fishing cat have died. A virus wiped out nearly half the bison herd between September and October 2013, with four of the nine animals dying from Malignant Catarrhal Fever, which causes an inflammation of the mucus membranes and has no cure. It was apparently transmitted to the bison by desert sheep that arrived in the park at the end of May 2013. Once the sheep were identified as carriers of the disease, they were immediately removed from the park, but it was too late to stop the deaths of four bison.
Newborn bison don’t always survive — one that was born in June 2016 died a couple days later.
London says she wants to thank all the people who have walked by and praised her for the work she has done. She also said much of the minor upgrades couldn’t have been done without money raised by the Zoo Society and bar owner Cindy Welk, who has held numerous fundraisers with money going toward items like industrial-strength toys for the animals to use.
Her best advice to her replacement is keep fighting for the animals, to make sure they are safe and well cared for. And in her eyes, that includes getting funding for an additional zookeeper position.