By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — The City of Marshfield last had a bear at Wildwood Park & Zoo in 2011. Since long-term fixture “Miss Grizz” died, the bear pen at Wildwood has been without a main attraction, but that may not be the case for much longer as the city of Marshfield has been raising funds to create a new and expanded environment that will be able to house two grizzly bears.
Up until this point, the city has been in what they call the “quiet phase” of putting together funds for the project. The plans will be formally announced to the public 2 p.m. Saturday in front of the now vacant bear pen in conjunction with Maple Fall Fest.
A lineup of speakers at the announcement will describe the project and show picture boards of what the new pen will look like.
Providing that the project reaches its funding goal of $1.1 million, construction would begin in the spring of 2015 and wrap up that fall. So far the city has already raised $1 million and now looks to the public for the final $100,000.
A number of sources have already contributed. Parks and Recreation Department Director Ed Englehart said the Zoo Society put $143,000 towards the project, the city of Marshfield budgeted $90,000, and the remaining money has thus far come from businesses and private donations.
Russ Wenzel, who was the CEO of Wenzel’s Farm Sausage prior to passing away in 2010, left money for various projects and causes around the city of Marshfield. The first gift from Wenzel’s fund will go towards the bear pen.
The design calls for a large expansion of the existing bear pen. There will be a glass enclosure for optimal viewing of the bears as well as a large wooded area to create a more natural environment. Spanning the wooded area and the glass enclosure will be a bridge the bears can traverse.
The wooded area will be a nearly 40,000-square foot enclosure, and the existing pen will be expanded from 1,200 to 4,600 square feet with the addition of the glass-enclosed area. There will be additional pools installed for the bears with re-circulating water. The bridge spanning the enclosures will be 65 feet long.
Matt McLean, the Director of Marshfield’s Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), said that the bridge would be a unique feature. “This will be the only bear exhibit in Wisconsin that has this bridge,” McLean said. “It’s a unique attraction for visitors.”
The CVB committed $75,000, its largest donation ever, to the bear pen project.
The project has not gone public with its fundraising efforts until now because organizers wanted to make sure they had most of the money raised prior to making an announcement.
“You want to make sure you have the funds before you go public,” Mike Brehm, a co-chair of the project’s fundraising committee said. “We feel that we have the adequate funds.”
The city and those involved in fundraising efforts hope that the new project will be an attraction for Marshfield residents that will also draw in people from outside of the community. McLean mentioned that Wildwood Zoo was rated in a CVB survey as the top attraction in Marshfield, and the new bear pen would enhance that standing.
The CVB is also working with the television program “Discover Wisconsin” to do a segment about the bear exhibit next year.
Floyd Hamus and his wife Pat have contributed significantly to the bear pen project. Hamus said that he has long been an advocate for the park system in Marshfield.
“We believe that is an item that the smallest child to the oldest person will always enjoy is to go to a park. And, if you would see a busy day down at Hamus Park down there, sometimes there’s two parties going on at a time, and there’s 100-plus people there at one time, and to watch the grandpas and grandmas fishing with their grandchildren or great-grandchildren and catching fish is just an enjoyable thing in life for older people.
“This bear zoo deal has got to be one of the greatest (things) because all children like to see wild animals and to get as close to them as we will with this one with the glassed-in area there, they’ll just about be able to put their finger on their nose,” Hamus said. “We think that this is a great project for the city, more so than ever put together before.”
Though the majority of the funds are already raised for the exhibit itself, acquiring a bear is still a work in progress. Wildwood Zookeeper Steve Burns said the zoo would hope to acquire a young bear that would need a safe environment.
“Ideally we’d be able to get bears from the wild, you know maybe orphan bears, cubs, or yearlings that their mother had a run in with a hunter or was struck by a car,” Burns said. “What comes available at the time we’re ready to put a bear in, who knows, but that’s kind of what we’re aiming for at this time.”
Amber Kiggens-Leifheit, Marshfield Area Community Foundation Executive Director, added that there is already money set aside to attain bears when the time comes. Dr. John Lueck of Marshfield, who passed away in 2012, started the bear acquisition fund.
Burns said that the new bear exhibit will serve as a premiere example of the zoo’s goal of displaying animals in the best possible environment for their emotional and physical needs.
“Having so much purely natural space in the bear woods area I think will be not only great for the bears in terms of their quality of life but also really provide our visitors the opportunity to see bears being bears, more so than in our old exhibit, for example, where you see a bear sitting in a concrete enclosure,” Burns said.
Englehart thinks that the exhibit will represent an upgrade in quality of life for the community. “This is a quality exhibit in a very small community,” Englehart said. “It’s a great family experience and environment.”
To donate to the new Grizzly Bear Exhibit, please mail your gift to the Marshfield Area Community Foundation, P.O. Box 456, Marshfield, WI 54449. Make your check payable to the Marshfield Area Community Foundation, and list “Bear Exhibit” on the memo line, or contact the Marshfield Parks and Recreation Department at 715-384-4642 for more information. Donations are tax deductible.