Dane Co. Supervisors approve investigation of Henry Vilas Zoo

Dane Co. Supervisors plan to bring in a retired judge to investigate a series of claims, which stretch back for years, against the Henry Vilas Zoo.
Published: Jun. 3, 2022 at 8:04 AM CDT|Updated: Jun. 3, 2022 at 8:13 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Dane Co. Supervisors plan to bring in a retired judge to investigate a series of claims, which stretch back for years, against the Henry Vilas Zoo. On Thursday, its Board of Supervisors voted overwhelmingly to launch an investigation into allegations that range from mistreatment or neglect of animals at the zoo to racism within the Zoo’s management and people leaving because of a hostile work environment.

The resolution directs Dane Co. Chair Patrick Miles to enlist a retired Circuit Court Judge to lead the inquiry and sets aside $50,000 for the investigation, which is expected to last no more than four months. Miles welcomed the proposal’s passage, saying the Board needs to restore the public’s trust in the zoo, ensure employees are treated with respect, and the animals treated humanely.

“We have a great asset in both the zoo and the dedicated staff. This investigation should provide us with recommendations to make sure we are doing everything we can to make sure this is the case,” he added.

The proposal came following a Wisconsin State Journal article in April that detailed the departure of the only two Black zookeepers, who left for opportunities in other cities. According to the report, they recounted in written exit interviews the use of racial epithets against Asians, retaliation by management, and seeing animals die because of what the former keepers claim was management decisions. In one instance highlighted by the State Journal, a penguin was reportedly decapitated by a racoon. A week later, its editorial board issued a call for an independent investigation.

The proposal approved Thursday night specifically cited the article and directed the investigation to “include all issues raised in the Wisconsin State Journal’s report.” The allegations listed in the text of the proposal include (taken from resolution):

  • allegations of racism by zoo management
  • allegations of retaliation for union activity
  • allegations of retaliation for whistleblowing
  • allegations that employees have been unequally disciplined
  • allegations that animals at the zoo have been neglected or mistreated
  • allegations that zoo employees have left their jobs due to a hostile work environment

The resolution passed by a vote of 25 to 7, with one supervisor abstaining. The measure will now have to go to Dane Co. Executive Joe Parisi, who released a statement Friday sharply criticizing the plan, for his signature.

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