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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Henry Vilas Zoo facing difficulties in receiving funding

Allegations of poor conditions, leadership are roadblocks for Zoo

The Henry Vilas Zoo is seeking funding to renovate its exhibits and continue to qualify for accreditation by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, the local institution is requesting unprecedented capital expenditures from Dane County to support the overhaul of existing exhibits and bring them in line with AZA regulations ahead of next year’s on-site inspection to evaluate the zoo for re-accreditation.

During the past few years, the Vilas Zoo, one of the last remaining admission-free zoos in the United States, has struggled to remain financially solvent amidst a range of difficulties. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, aging facilities and decreasing attendance have made money tight for the zoo.

Other issues have plagued the zoo. According to Channel 7 News, there was allegation of sexual assault against the zoo’s director in 2021.


More recently, safety concerns have prompted the relocation of several of the zoo’s animals, with its penguins being transferred to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore last year after reports surfaced alleging inadequate practices that resulted in the death of several penguins, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

This past month, 608Today said the zoo’s lone giraffe was moved to Green Bay in advance of the construction of a new habitat, part of the Vilas Zoo’s larger plans to build an “Edge of Africa” wing.

According to the zoo’s website, the wing will cost $21 million and will provide state of the art amenities for the health and well-being of the giraffes. It will also contain large platforms for zoo visitors to feed the giraffes both inside and outside of the exhibit.

In a budget proposal for the 2024 fiscal year, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi included $21 million for the project’s construction, with $9.3 million of that being borrowed from the county. The remaining funds necessary would come from a combination of existing donations totaling $8 million, and an additional $4 million capital campaign that has yet to be initiated.

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Some local officials have expressed concerns about the zoo’s ability to fundraise due to the recent controversies surrounding its administration, according to Channel 3000.

District 6 Supervisor on the Dane County Board of Supervisors Yogesh Chawla introduced an amendment in the Personnel & Finance Committee of the Dane County Board of Supervisors stipulating that the zoo must obtain the $4 million before beginning construction on the project.

“We need to make sure that prior to the county putting $9 million towards that zoo as a capital campaign, where they say they’re going to raise 4 million, we need to make sure all that money is raised prior to the county putting any money towards construction,” Chawla said.

Chawla and many of his colleagues are unconvinced of the ability of the zoo’s current leadership to guide the institution out of this difficult position. The director, Ronda Schwetz, has come under fire amid an accusation of sexual assault, with a civil lawsuit against her resulting in a $2.8 million settlement, $500,000 of which was paid by Dane County, according to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Though Schwetz has denied any wrongdoing in the incident, local officials have repeatedly called for her to be fired. This March, 26 out of the County’s 37 Supervisors signed an open letter asking Parisi to remove her, according to WKOW.

Chawla said he has “no confidence in the zoo director, who has shown a repeated pattern of poor judgment and done a lot to tarnish the reputation of our zoo.”

Chawla said the upcoming inspection by the AZA, which has been regarded as one of the primary factors motivating recent the capital proposal, will be made even more difficult by Schwetz’s behavior.

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“Based on the sanctions that she has, she’s not even able to fully participate in AZA activities. That’s going to make accreditation a much larger challenge,” said Chawla.

The multi-step accreditation process zoos go through to remain AZA members is vital to ensuring institutions are in compliance with the latest standards in animal care as well as visitor safety.

“Our accreditation process is the most rigorous accreditation for zoological facilities in the world. If a zoo wants to be accredited, they have to submit an application,” AZA Vice President of Communications Rob Vernon said. “That application is reviewed and if it’s in order, then you have an on-site inspection. Then, following the on-site inspection, there’s a report that’s written and then you have a hearing in front of the AZA Accreditation Commission.”

As the zoo seeks to overhaul its existing facilities and remain compliant with AZA requirements, it might look toward the organization’s existing support network.

“One of the best things about being a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as a zoo, is you have access to all the other top notch facilities around the world,” Vernon said. “So when there is a concern about a habitat, or you have a question about how to construct a draft habitat, you can reach out to this community and receive the best information available about the current science related to drafts and how best to construct that habitat.”

At the time this article was written, the Henry Vilas Zoo had not yet responded to a request for comment.

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