Walking on the wild side at Shalom zoo
Wisconsin's wildest zoo Wochit
WEST BEND - What started as 30 acres purchased to preserve the land from development in 1979, has turned into the number one attraction in the West Bend area, encompassing 100 acres with nearly four miles of trails.
Licensed as a zoo in 2010, Shalom Wildlife Zoo is home to more than 400 animals living in large natural areas.
Featured on Fox 6 news in Milwaukee recently and receiving Trip Advisor's Certificate of Excellence three years in a row, it's one of Wisconsin's best kept secrets. People living 10 minutes away visit, exclaiming they never knew the zoo was there nestled along the quiet Town of Farmington Road.
Evidence of the zoo's early beginnings are evident when walking into the admission building. Antlers hang from the ceiling, pointing to the zoo's origin as a deer farm.
David and Lana Fechter grew up as neighbors on Shalom Drive. When they were about 19 or 20 they purchased the land between their childhood homes, explained their son Buckley.
Since David is a deer expert it's not a surprise the zoo started as a deer farm with native whitetail deer purchased from the state. Fechters continued to buy land as it became available and expand the zoo.
Soon people wanted to see the animals. Guided wagon ride tours provided an opportunity to educate visitors on animals, plants, habitats and Native American culture, according to the Shalom Wildlife website.
In 1990, bison and elk were added "for additional wildlife viewing enjoyment." Red fox, raccoons, skunks and mink were purchased, with more species added every year.
"They really enjoyed animals and have slowly grown it to what it is today," Buckley said. "They just kept adding more and more animals and people became interested and wanted to go through and look at them. That's when it became more animals for show and became what it is now."
As David and Lana expanded the zoo, they cut paths, made trails and learned as the zoo grew. In 2002, self guided tours were available for those who wanted to walk the trails. In 2006, golf carts were added for those unable to walk, allowing anyone the fun of a quiet ride through the woods.
"Every time they upgrade a display, they try to make it as good as they possibly can," said Buckley. "They keep trying to improve it and make it better. They just want to make it better for everyone to enjoy."
The zoo became a full time job for the couple about 20 years ago. Since then, a few full time zookeepers were hired when it "progressed past a two-person business," Buckley said.
Shalom is a privately owned, federally licensed zoo with a mission "to preserve the wilderness, while providing education, enjoyment and wildlife encounters in a natural ecosystem," according to the website.
Receiving no government assistance, admission fees fund new exhibits and feed for the animals, although guests can have the pleasure of helping with the feeding process.
"We sell buckets of grain - a special dietary mix - it's what they eat," said Joy Schultz, David and Lana's daughter. "When we get a lot of people through, they end up feeding the animals themselves."
However, the grain feed needs to be supplemented and meat purchased for carnivores.
Guests can also bring in food for the animals, but it has to be approved before entering the zoo. The bears especially look forward to treats from guests, Joy pointed out.
The zoo started with David and Lana's love for animals, but grew to something much more.
"They try to make sure that everyone who comes here has a wonderful time, that they enjoy themselves," explained Buckley.
"They really love the kids," added Joy, "especially when someone comes up from Milwaukee and says, 'What's that noise" and it's just the wind blowing through the grass and they've never heard that."
Walking or riding through the Shalom Wildlife Zoo is like hiking through the woods with the best view of animals and signs providing information on Native Americans, environmental facts, or facts on trees, plants, animals and habitats. Especially fun for children are play areas scattered throughout the zoo.
"The best compliment we get is that people love it because the animals are in their natural environment rather than something that's all concrete," said Joy.
"There is something to be said for looking at animals when there are trees and greenery around and you’re not on asphalt and concrete and you’re not looking at them through glass," added Buckley.
While animals at some zoos may pace cages, at Shalom, the animals are standing by fences waiting for food, eagerly reaching through to nibble the grain off an upturned palm.
"It might be a zoo, but it's nothing more than a farm," said Joy. "It's like any farm. A farmer never quits - sunup to sundown. This isn't any different."
The Shalom Wildlife Zoo is open seven days a week. Visit the website at shalomwildlife.com for information on admission prices and activities.