BY JESSICA BLACKBURN | PHOTOS BY ALEX THOMAS
Last fall, the Wisconsin Heritage exhibit opened to the public at Henry Vilas Zoo and is now the home for badgers—Kaminsky, Dekker, and Bucky—as well as one sandhill crane.
On a sunny day, a portly brown and grey badger scurried through his new enclosure, flinging dirt with long, curved claws. He scampered to the far corner and hooked his claws into the textured walls to shimmy up the fence. He only managed about a foot before plopping down on his rump and turning sheepishly to the visitors laughing at his attempted escape.
The other badger’s mischievous black-and-white crested face peeked out from his recently dug tunnel to find the source of the noise. In the pen next door, the sandhill crane elegantly stretched its long neck, flapping slate gray wings like an oriental fan before dancing several feet towards its shed.
The exhibit features a den crawl to let visitors get up close and personal with the badgers. There is also an engaging story wall with signs that share the history of Wisconsin as a mining state and the evolution of the beloved UW-Madison mascot, Bucky Badger.
According to the signs, the badger became the state animal after Wisconsin adopted the nickname given to lead miners who burrowed into the side of hills while working through harsh winters.
In the 1890s, the university embraced its love for the ferocious state animal and used a live badger mascot at the football games. The university website says the badger escaped his cage various times and proved to be too fierce for the sidelines.
He was later retired to the Henry Vilas Zoo, beginning the long-standing relationship with the university.
According to UWBadgers.com, a live raccoon replaced the live badger mascot and was creatively named “Regdab” – which is badger spelled backwards. The university passed off this switch in mascot by saying Regdab was a “badger in a raccoon coat.”
The Henry Vilas Zoo was without a badger for about a year, and even before the badger’s passing, the visitors would often ask staff whether the zoo still had a badger since they never saw him – he was too busy digging burrows to bother with entertaining guests.
Emily Lundquist, membership and communication coordinator for Friends Of The Zoo, said, “When we got the two badgers, Kaminsky and Dekker, we thought what better time to build a new badger exhibit where you could actually, hopefully, see badgers and also give them a cool home.”
Kaminsky and Dekker were rescued by the zoo after being found injured and orphaned on the side of a road. They would not be able to return to the wild, so the decision to create a new exhibit also gave the zoo the opportunity to get a third educational badger.
Bucky is kept separate from the others because he is younger and more docile. He was purchased from a private breeder and trained in the animal health center several months before the exhibit opened. Emily said Bucky is an education animal learning to interact with visitors. He is tame enough for people to go into the exhibit by him and will be used for teaching and conservation programs. Unlike Bucky, people will not be interacting with Kaminsky and Dekker, because they are wild.
“Bucky is definitely not your typical badger,” Lundquist said.
A campaign known as “Bring Bucky Home” made the exhibit possible. The campaign was completed very quickly, according to Lundquist, after the zoo raised a total of $650,000 with the help of the community and private donations. When the Madison area raised $125,000, Hamel Family Wines matched them with their own gift of $125,000.
The zoo has a long standing history with the university since it took in the original live mascot, so it isn’t a surprise that the UW also partnered with Henry Vilas Zoo to help build the new badger exhibit.
Lundquist said, “You can tell it’s very UW-Madison-esque when you walk in there. We have the Bucky statue, and besides showcasing the badger state history and animal facts, we also display the history of mascot Bucky and UW-Madison.” The storyboards featuring the mascot history also show the progression of naming Bucky, since the badger originally went by the names Benny, Buddy, Bobby, Bouncey, and Bernie before settling on the iconic name UW-Madison now knows.
In addition to the badgers, the zoo received a sandhill crane from the International Crane Foundation, a conservation organization that helps injured cranes before releasing them back into the wild. The sandhill crane is another species native to Wisconsin.
“The zoo inherited this particular crane because he did not want to return to the wild,” Lundquist said. “He was very imprinted on humans, so when they kept releasing him into the wild, he kept coming back. He was provided with a home here so he could live out his life in comfort and be around humans.”
The Henry Vilas Zoo is one of 10 no-admission zoos in North America and is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “We’re really doing great things for animals and animal conservation,” said Lundquist, “We’re happy to be able to provide the Madison community with a view to the outside world from their own backyard.”