Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk praises the recent donation made to the Henry Vilas Zoo.[/media-credit]

Amid economic hardships for Dane County, the Henry Vilas Zoological Society announced Monday its $900,000 donation in support for the Henry Vilas Zoo.

The expanded partnership with Dane County will provide the Henry Vilas Zoo with additional staff to care for the animals, as well as more resources to accommodate the growing number of zoo visitors.

“While times are tough for the over 500,000 people we serve, it also means this tough recession has hit county government,” Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk said. “At a time when we need the resources — the dollars — more than ever, our partner has really stepped up.”

The Henry Vilas Zoological Society will contribute $350,000 to-ward the zoo’s operating expenses for 2009 and has pledged an additional $558,000 for 2010, according to a statement from Falk’s office.

Through a partnership with Dane County, the Henry Vilas Zoological Society has contributed $50,000 annually towards the zoo’s operating ex-penses since 2002, said Zoological Society Board Vice President Tom Dott, adding the additional financial support will be raised privately through operations at the zoo including concession and gift shop profits.

“We’re very excited about being able to continue this level of support with non-donor dollars,” Dott said. “This is a long standing relationship we’ve had with the county and we’re very, very excited to continue to step up and help keep this place the wonderful place that it is.”

Although operated by Dane County, funding for the zoo is split between the county and the city of Madison. In 2009, the zoo received $1.3 million in funding from the county and $350,000 from Madison, according to Falk spokesperson Josh Wescott.

Many Dane County residents are also facing economic challenges, Falk said, which makes the free zoo all the more important to the community.

“Times are tough and so families are staying close to home and where else is there a free zoo in this country, and at that, one of the best zoos in this country?” she said.

Falk said the free zoo is especially important for students who may be financially limited, as she recalled visiting the zoo in 1973 when she attended the University of Wisconsin Law School.

“That fundamental issue of a free place where people can come who don’t have a lot of money and can spend the entire day is just really special,” she said.

Falk added charging an admission to the zoo is not an option, as William and Anna Vilas opened the zoo in 1904 under the stipulation it must remain free for everyone.

“That’s why we need private donation to help us, especially if we want to continue to upgrade and make it a great place for animals instead of just an OK place,” she said.

Dott added he hoped the zoo will not need the additional funding from the Henry Vilas Zoological Society beyond 2010, as financially, “things return to some degree of normalcy.”