Lions And Zoos

In search of the Badger mindset

How long do real badgers live to earn their name in the “Badger State?”

There is an unholy noise coming from the Henry Vilas Zoo.

The fall morning has fangs, the air is just cool enough to be chilly. Clouds in the sky warn of drizzle. However, zoo-goers weren’t completely deterred — a modest number of minivans and SUVs line the parking lot.

“Hello welcome !” say two zoo volunteers posted near the front arch. The eldest, a gray-haired woman with a kind face and round glasses, sits while her younger companion stands by her side. The two are dressed in zoo uniform of an ocean blue shirt, but with hoodies thrown over the top to ward off the cold. There are no visitors in sight and the two seem happy to welcome a new prospect.

A question brought me here. The mysterious sound is a distracting curiosity, but it can’t break my concentration. New to Madison and Wisconsin, I want to learn more about the local avatars of our state’s animal.

“The badgers? The two volunteers exchange a look. “I don’t know much about them.”

The older woman squints in thought. “How many badgers do we have?” One or two?”

On the advice to report a zookeeper if I saw one, I drag myself out of the conversation.

This is not a promising sign.

Henry Vilas Zoo is located in Madison, Wisconsin in Badger State. The nickname of the “Badger State” traced back to the 1820s, when the state’s lead miners would supposedly live in their mines during the harsh winter months (although the truth of this is disputed, the nickname stuck to the mid-1800s). The University of Wisconsin-Madison adopted the badger as their mascot in 1889. When the live animal proved too unruly, they replaced it with the raccoon Regdab (badger spelled backwards), according to the school. website. Buckingham U. Badger – aka Bucky – the big-headed, striped-shirt wearing college mascot made his debut at a football game in 1949. Eight years later, Wisconsin made the badger the official animal of the ‘State.

One (read: I) would think the glory and pride of the state would raise the profiles of Dekker and Kaminsky, the zoo badgers.

The theory is 0-1. I make a loop in the alleys of the zoo. Construction intersects the most direct route. I rub my hands together and blow on my fingers, trying to warm the numb appendages. With the exception of myself, the zoo’s visitor population seems almost entirely made up of retirees and families with young children.

That I got lost is no surprise – if I had pulled out the GPS from my phone, I still couldn’t guarantee that I would reach my destination. I’m the way around, past the ice cream shop, the deserted giant tree-shaped children’s play structure, and a crew setting up twinkling lights on the zoo’s trees for the annual Zoo Lights winter holiday event . From time to time, the unidentified moan resounds.

Yes, literally, in giant letters. Photo by Emily Kaysinger.

Then, finally, in giant letters: BADGER.

A small concrete building squats behind the panel, painted a now weather-washed red, with an adjacent outdoor space riddled with holes.

Luckily, I’m not the only one outside the badger enclosure. Two families stand there, the children pulling themselves up to see over the chest-high fence. Nothing moves. The families move on, with one of the mothers taking a few quick photos of her children with the statue of Bucky nearby. They do not enter the badger building.

“Hm,” I mumble, looking at the badger information plaque. So it’s… 0-2 for my badger fame theory?

The badger enclosure at Vilas Zoo.

The badger enclosure at Henry Vilas Zoo. Photo by Emily Kaysinger.

Nevertheless, I have arrived: the beloved animal of our state. Fierce. Tenacious. Pugnacious. Fergalicious – no waiting...

Sleeping.

And adorably, curled up inside a straw-filled hut. Just his back, whether it’s Dekker or Kaminsky, it’s impossible to say, visible through the glass.

Thin.

I stroll there for a while. Beloved boys stay in bed.

Vilas Zoo Bucky Badger statue.

The Henry Vilas Zoo Bucky statue poses for the camera. Photo by Emily Kaysinger.

Badgers, alas, are nocturnal. By the zoo, they live an average of 26 years in captivity and 14 years in the wild, measure between 1.7 and 2.8 feet long, and weigh between 8.8 and 26 (quite the range!) pounds. With long claws, sharp teeth and a triangular head designed for digging, they are primarily carnivorous and can dig at amazing speed.

This last fact is hard to imagine when looking at the peaceful ball of gray floof.

Who are you? I think.

The plaque outside contains some clues. The brothers, named after Wisconsin basketball players, “were rescued on March 23, 2015 (the day the Badger Men’s basketball team played in the Sweet 16). Found in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, the family who discovered them contacted local wildlife rehabilitators, who called the zoo. We were happy to give them a home.

That makes them six-year-old Wisconsinites.

One of the badgers at Vilas Zoo.

One of the zoo’s badgers, asleep and unable to answer questions from the press. Photo by Emily Kaysinger.

I feel a tingle in the back of my neck. Looking up, I lock eyes with someone watching

right on me.

“Any comments about your neighbours?” I ask the sandhill crane. He remains silent, though he seems pleased with the attention, stepping closer to the edge of the fence. Later, he will abandon the silence to call a delighted and very noisy young boy.

I wander. The volunteers at the front had advised me to look for someone in a blue zoo shirt to talk to, so I’m keeping my eyes peeled. I had seen one sweeping the camel exhibit earlier, but now they are nowhere to be found.

The strange sound resounds again, closer this time. Following him leads me to the lion’s den.

And there, I find a Wildlife Champion volunteer. A goldmine of information, he kindly chats between telling other visitors about the lions. It has tales of many animals: the lions are a pair, Pelo and Shakura, whose teenage son defied his father’s dominance and was moved backwards, but the three roar at each other . Harmon, the giant leather jester of a rhinoceros, has come over from Florida with his favorite log, which he must be allowed to take with him everywhere. As Halloween approaches, the bears have been given pumpkins for enrichment, which they love to munch on.

The neighbor of badgers, the sandhill crane.

A curious sandhill crane. Photo by Emily Kaysinger.

When I ask him about badgers, he hesitates. “I don’t know much about them,” he says. He tells me that they are brothers who came as young Cubs. Usually, as male badgers mature, they become, like lions, territorial and fight, causing them to separate. These two never fought, so they were allowed to stay together.

According to a Press release, Henry Vilas Zoo had a third badger, Bucky, who was later adopted. Bucky was moved to Green Bay Zoo earlier this year to be the companion of Helen, their resident reclusive badger. Alas, Bucky the Badger – BUCKY THE Badger! – has not been recalled by current Henry Vilas Zoo volunteers.

May your grass be greener (your filth… dirtier?) elsewhere, Bucky.

A lion at the Vilas Zoo, a neighbor of the badgers.

The offending lion, Pelo, nine years old and gorgeous. Photo by Emily Kaysinger.

“I think the rhino and the giraffe are zoo favourites,” says John.

“Hmm,” I say. 0-3 for the badgers, I think. Although with Bucky omitted, the 100-3 score might be more appropriate.

With my head full of zoo animal gossip, I’m one step closer to answering my burning question: The Dekker and Kaminsky badgers – who are they? I’m going back to the badger exhibit. One last shot.

Now noon, several people come and go. One of the badgers is away for a brief moment, sniffing for a treat, before returning to bed. I ask some visitors what they think of animals. A man says he likes their names, as a Badger basketball fan. Another, Wayne from Idaho, says he’s seen wild badgers before – his father walked on them once, coming home late at night after parking his tractor in the barn. Contrary to expectations, Wayne’s father is not now a foot. “Badger got away. It surprised him, however.

Bucky the badger.

Bucky the badger, verifiable chonker. Image taken from the Henry Vilas Zoo Instagram page.

Badgers. The “don’t step on me…please” animal.

I look at Dekker/Kaminsky through the window. If he’s not fierce, tenacious, pugnacious like I thought, who is he? Is he just another animal, touted in Wisconsin purely for the sheer coincidence that the state’s lead miners of yore shared similar digging tendencies?

Is it possible that badgers are… boring?

“I love badgers!” a happy little voice rises next to me. A girl, no older than 10, leans against the glass next to me, a bright smile spreading across her face.

“Are they your favorite?” I ask.

She does not hesitate. “We are the homeland of badgers, so…yes! She strikes a pose, arms outstretched.

Her father laughed, coming to stand behind her. “I think your heart is with the seals.”

I laugh, but the girl insists. “My heart may be with the seals, but my affection is with them both!”

The quote stays with me as I go. I enter the gift shop, curious. There is only one badger toy, a large stuffed animal. When I ask the cashier, she explains that toys are difficult to store. The zoo competes with every other potential buyer in the state, which means supplies are often limited. But they are very popular among zoo enthusiasts. “We are asked a lot,” says the clerk.

Back outside in the golden light of the autumn sun, families stream through the entrance. The lions roar. Later tonight there will be a Badger men’s hockey game, a raucous 1-0 victory that will fill the bars of State Street with cheering students.

And our badger brothers Dekker and Kaminsky will celebrate by having a quiet, unremarkable night.