Richard C. Schweitzer, the lead giraffe keeper at the Milwaukee County Zoo, died on April 17 of cancer. He was 62.
The Wisconsin native was a lifelong plant and animal lover. Growing up on his family’s dairy farm, Schweitzer spent much of his childhood picking apples and caring for the cows. He ran a hardware store from 1979 to 1983, then went back to school to study horticulture.
Schweitzer earned a degree from the Milwaukee Area Technical College and took a job working for Milwaukee County. He served as the caretaker for the county’s greenhouses and did all of the plantings at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Eager to work with animals, Schweitzer spent several years applying for every open zoo position. In 1991, he got the chance to pursuit his dream job.
After training in different areas of the zoo, Schweitzer became a giraffe specialist. Each day, he fed the animals, cleaned their living quarters, cared for their health and gave tours to school children. One of his favorite tasks was letting the students feed bananas to the giraffes.
Schweitzer was also charged with handling the animals’ reproduction. Although he administered birth control medication in their feed, Schweitzer found a surprise waiting for him on Oct. 31, 2003. The new arrival — a 112-pound extra reticulated giraffe — lay on the ground near his mother, Malindi.
Schweitzer was so stunned by the discovery that he called a co-worker to confirm that the baby giraffe wasn’t a stuffed animal placed in the pen as some sort of Halloween prank. Turns out the young male was the product of a final fling between Malindi and Kio, the zoo’s only adult male. Kio died in 2002, shortly after the calf’s conception.
In honor of his son who was killed in a 1993 car crash at the age of 21, Schweitzer named the newest giraffe Mark.