From his back porch off Randall Ave., Chuck Erickson used to be able to hear lions.
This surprising neighborhood feature was thanks to the Henry Vilas Zoo. Erickson, who can no longer hear lions from his current home, is the Dane County supervisor for District 13, where the zoo is located.
The exotic animal attractions are one of the many unique values the zoo brings to the Madison community — one it is trying to maintain. But in an effort to maintain its Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation, the zoo is making changes.
As of March 31, the zoo will no longer be partnered with the Henry Vilas Zoological Society.
Formed three years after the zoo was created, the society fundraises for the zoo, which has allowed it to remain free. Erickson said this is one of the zoo’s key aspects.
“Anybody can go there… Basically, the zoo is free and open and that’s another great attribute of it,” Erickson said. “It’s another asset in our community.”
For the past 105 years, the society has been partnered with the zoo, running its fundraising and concessions operations while Dane County has managed staff and the animals they work with.
Erickson said the society did “really well” fundraising for the zoo. But in a letter from Dane County Executive Joe Parisi to Tom Hanson, the chair of the society, the county government said the society had been raising funds that went to accounts that are inaccessible to the zoo.
Parisi wrote that money raised through donations and concessions should go to animal care. Funding is a concern for the zoo, as one of its unmet AZA requirements includes maintaining a sufficient staff, Erickson said.
To address this issue, Erickson has introduced a resolution to hire nine full-time-equivalent employees for the zoo. This resolution will be evaluated by the county board on April 11.
Mark Markel, dean of the UW School of Veterinary Medicine and a member of the society’s board of directors, said the AZA accreditation is key because it sets animal care standards.
“If you’re not accredited, then it’s less clear whether you’re meeting those standards,” Markel said. “So as far as the comfort level … I think it’s very important that the zoo maintains its AZA accreditation.”
This AZA accreditation has helped make the zoo a positive part of the Madison community. While he was growing up, Erickson said his only memories of the zoo were animals pacing in smelly cages. Now, however, Erickson said visitors can tell animals are well cared for.
Erickson said he hopes staffing issues will have been addressed by the time the zoo is re-evaluated this June.
The zoo is working to fill some of the roles previously performed by the society. In a recent press release, Parisi announced that Centerplate will be the zoo’s new partner in assisting with concessions and attractions. In a later press release, Parisi announced the zoo is working with Mike Gill, a national consultant with more than 40 years of experience with zoos and aquariums. Gill will advise the zoo during this transitional period.
UW’s School of Veterinary Medicine became the official veterinary medical providers for the zoo earlier this year. While the zoo transitions into its next phsase, Markel said the veterinary school will continue to ensure the animals have the “best medical care that can be provided.”
Markel said the society has been an “integral part of the zoo’s success,” and that he is not sure what fundraising for the zoo will look like now.
Erickson said he would like it if the society could continue to run fundraising operations off-site. Markel would also like for the society to continue fundraising, but said it is unlikely.
“Overall, I’m just sad,” Markel said. “I’m sad that this relationship, for a variety of reasons, is ending. It would be my hope that that doesn’t happen or somehow this gets turned around. It doesn’t seem … a likely outcome.”
As an undergrad at UW, Erickson said he remembered visiting the zoo, adding that he hopes students will continue doing so. Because the zoo is free and open to everyone, it is a valuable resource for both children and adults, Markel said.
Erickson said the impact of these changes remains uncertain, but he hopes it can remain one of Madison’s assets.
“We still want the zoo to be accredited, we still want it to be a special place,” Erickson said. “You know there are tons of people who go there. I still want it to be free and open to the public.”