For the Love of the Animals — Spotlight on What We Stood to Lose

Areas of animal loss WIthout aza accreditation

Areas of animal loss WIthout aza accreditation

In just a couple of hours the contract between the county and the Henry Vilas Zoological Society will expire. It has been a long few weeks since I first learned about the dispute between the Zoological Society and Dane County. I have poured over contracts and documents, and had hours of meetings. Throughout, I have held a critical view, trying to decipher and reconcile the reports—received both in writing and in face-to-face meetings. As you have seen in the media this has been an extremely emotional process. And, the reason is, of course, because everyone involved loves the animals and the mission of the zoo. The zoo provided different fulfillment for the individuals involved, from conservation efforts, to animal welfare, to camaraderie, to offering a wonderful and free resource for residents and families—stretching beyond the borders of Dane County.

The priority for the two parties involved is to support their individual missions; the Henry Vilas Zoological Society was to focus on the fundraising, and the county staff on the care-taking of the animals. As happens with organizations that evolve over time those relationships can become unclear as to where one stops and where the other begins. This lack of clarity, and the inability to resolve the differences—despite 10 months of negotiation, and a 3-month contract extension—led to the concern of the loss of accreditation. The impact of losing accreditation would mean that the highlighted areas on the map above would lose animals. And, of course, both entities felt they had the best way to protect the zoo in the long-run. There was a disagreement between the two regarding how to move forward. As I understand the information, ultimately the county felt more confidence in their vision to do what needed to happen, and ability to protect the zoo’s accreditation by allowing the contract to expire.

The zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The accreditation carries with it some of the most unique animals at our zoo. We do not own all of the animals, they are simply housed with us because we’ve proven our ability to care for them.

A couple of things to clear up about process:

  • Dane County is committed to continuing service as usual—including no charge to visitors.

  • AZA accreditation is the top priority in maintaining our unique zoo.

  • While a 100 year-long relationship is admirable, it is a good idea within partnerships to re-evaluate how that partnership is working, and always ask how things may be done better. This may lead to a major shift if it is the best interest of the mission and the people it serves.

  • The Dane County Board does not negotiate contracts. We are able to take action only on the items presented to us.

  • This conflict is one that arises frequently with content-expert organizations that are supported by a separate fundraising organization. I was surprised to learn that this conflict is particularly common with zoos.

I have received as much feedback from all of you on this topic as I have on any other. I do love the engagement, and hope that it continues into other areas as well! I have heard stories in favor of a split and against. In working towards an educated decision, I spent a lot of time with all of the information to make the best decision that I felt i could. With all of this information, I plan to support the upcoming resolutions 607 and 629, expected at the April 11 County Board meeting. Resolution 607 adds several positions to meet the accrediting body, and continue uninterrupted service. The positions include: a Zoo Manager, a Facility and Animal Life Support Assistant, Semi Skilled Laborer, 2 Zoo Keepers, a General Operations Manager, a Marketing and Outreach Coordinator, a Volunteer Coordinator, and an Education Manager. Some of these positions are required by the AZA and came up in the review last year as being necessary. With the change in the structure between the organizations, the county has increased ability to make these hires as needed. Resolution 629 allows Centerplate to operate concessions at the zoo.

Looking to the future: a request for proposals will be released to find a fundraising partner. Of course, the HVZS is welcome to apply to that process. It is hopeful that the transition will be smooth in the shifting access of all digital assets, as well as volunteer and donor lists to the county. A lot has been learned about how to nurture a partnership of this magnitude between the county and a nonprofit organization better into the future. I have heard a need for clearer lines of communication between both entities, and increased transparency from the fundraising partner.

For more specifics, I am happy to continue to respond to your direct requests. You can always find me at