Dane County moves forward with changes to Henry Vilas Zoo

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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV)-- Dane County Executive Joe Parisi announced plans for the county to move forward with operating the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison without the current zoological society.

On Tuesday, Parisi along with Dane County Board Chair Sharon Corrigan announced two resolutions. One would add nine staff members to take care of giraffes and other animals at the zoo. The other begins transferring operations for concessions to Centerplate, another company.

The resolutions will be before the Public Works Committee Tuesday night. Parisi said these changes will help the zoo maintain accreditation.

"Our focus right now is on keeping this experience the same tomorrow as it is today. And in order to do that, we need AZA accreditation," Parisi said. "The changes taking place—those that have been making news, are all behind the scenes, and have to do with which model and which support organization will be used to help with fundraising into the future."

On Monday, Parisi announced a consultant will advise Dane County officials as the county takes over fundraising duties and other operations from the Henry Vilas Zoological Society.

The contract with the society expires March 31.

"We will no longer function in any recognizable form as to the way we’ve been for the last 100 years," said Amy Supple, Vice Chair of the Zoological Society.

Parisi and other county officials claim the zoological society has a $6 million endowment fund that is inaccessible to county zoo staff. Officials say that money should be spent on the animals.

County officials also raised concerns with staffing costs and Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accreditation. Parisi said money should have been used to hire more zookeepers.

"“There are many opinions in our community about what our fundraising partnership should look like and who should perform that function," said Parisi. "“That question will best be answered through a thoughtful, deliberate process that relies on experts in the field to advise us on our best options and the best fit for our unique zoo."

The county also announced they will put out a proposal for a new fundraising partner with the help of a consultant.

"We fully expect that the society will be one of the folks who respond to that RFP," Parisi said.

However, Supple said after the contract expires, the society's abilities will be severely limited.

"We’re not going to have any employees any longer. We’re not really going to have a functioning organization, so for us to be able to respond to the RFP in any meaningful way will be challenging at best and most likely impossible," she said.

Supple also raised concerns the county's decisions could affect the zoo's AZA accreditation.

The AZA accreditation measures an organization against the standards and best practices of that profession. Fewer than 10% of the approximately 2,800 animal exhibitors licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture are AZA accredited.

On Friday, the society proposed a compromise that ended its operating role, but would continue its function as the exclusive fundraising partner of the zoo. The county said they would not review any proposal until they finish working with their consultant.

"We must step back, look at national best practices, and move forward in a well-researched, well-reasoned manner," Parisi said.

Supple said the society is still hopeful they can reach an agreement.

"We’re going to ask the county board to really consider the proposal that we put on the table last Friday to remain the fundraising partner for the zoo and hopefully we can do that," she said. "We’ve asked for the county board to recommend a mediated process and we would be prepared to try to get to an agreement within 30 days, and we feel that that’s very doable and we can all go forward together. We think we’re stronger together."

If an agreement is not reached, the society will lay off their employees and stop operations at their office at the end of the week.