The Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin, promotes a human understanding of animals through recreation and education to encourage conservation and the protection of the living natural world. Admission is free at this community-supported zoo. The Big Cats exhibits feature African lions and Amur tigers. The cats can be seen all year round, as the enclosure features heated rocks for their comfort in the winter.

In the Tropical Rainforest Aviary visitors can see tropical plants, fish, and birds as they walk through the free-flight aviary. Outside of the aviary, otters play and swim in their waterfall, and the world’s largest rodent, the capybaras, can also be viewed. The Primate House is home to “pre-monkeys,” monkeys, orangutans, and other apes. In the Discovery Center and Herpetarium, visitors learn about the museum’s cold-blooded animals, including the green anaconda, and the largest of the tortoise species, the Aldabra tortoise. The Arctic Passage is the newest exhibit at the zoo and houses polar bears, grizzly bears, and harbor seals. There is also underwater viewing of the stream in which the polar bears fish. The Savanna and High Plains Exhibit is home to animals from high plains all around the world, including African giraffes, Bactrian camels from Asia and South American alpacas. To learn about wildlife from areas closer to Madison, Wisconsin, visitors will want to stop at the North American Prairie Exhibit to see the bison and the prairie dogs, which have their pups on display each spring. The new Wisconsin Heritage Exhibit features three American badgers and a rescued sandhill crane.

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History: The Henry Vilas Park opened in 1904 with a donation of 63 acres of land from William F. and Anna M. Vilas. Their only stipulation was that admissions could not be charged. In 1911, the zoo officially opened in the park with the first animal exhibits. Bears were introduced in 1913, lions in 1917, and the first primates in 1929. In 1937, the City of Madison purchased the zoo and the Vilas Park along with several other local parks. Additional animals were introduced over the years, and their housing and exhibits were expanded. In 1983, the City of Madison transferred zoo ownership to Dane County in a process that would not be complete until 1993. In the early 2000s the zoo saw substantial updates with the introduction of a $1.2 million visitors center in the former aviary and the subsequent completion of the new $4.2 million Tropical Aviary. Both of these additions are part of the plan of a $27 million Zoo Century capital campaign. The Arctic Passage Exhibit (2015) and the Wisconsin Heritage Exhibit (2016) are the latest zoo additions. Today, the zoo is funded primarily through Dane County and contributions from the non-profit Friends of Henry Vilas Zoo.

Ongoing Programs and Education: Although all exhibits at the zoo are educational, the Animal Health Center is not only used as a hospital and quarantine center, but offers a classroom space where the next generation of zoo vets can learn about animal care. The Children’s Zoo includes the Red and Green Barn, which house a goat herd, red pandas, and aardvarks, and offer several activities for children including carousel and electric train rides. Zoo camps, zoo sleepovers, and group tours offer guests a behind-the-scenes look at the zoo, visits with zookeepers, and exclusive animal interactions. Bleacher Talks allow day visitors up-close interactions with animals, which they learn about in detail with a 30-minute talk. Several of the zoo’s programs are related to its commitment to conservation education. The Monarch Waystation, for example, is a garden just outside the aviary, in which migrating monarch butterflies may rest and find food. This program is in partnership with Monarch Watch of the University of Kansas. Catching Hope is a program that repurposes snares collected from poached wild animals and makes them into handcrafted goods such as dreamcatchers and keychains. Money raised from the sale of these crafts supports the IUCN Saola Working Group (SWG) to train more anti-poaching teams in Laos and Vietnam. Zoo Doo is a product made of lion and tiger feces, which is sold to locals to be used as deer deterrent in gardens.

Past and Future Exhibits: The Henry Vilas Zoo is host to both private and public events. Events in 2017 include the Rendez-Zoo fundraiser, which offers guests an “Out of Africa” culinary experience. The Zoo Run Run is an annual 5 or 10-kilometer run or walk, with a mission to raise funds for the zoo and keep it “forever free.”

702 S Randall Avenue, Madison, WI 53715, website, Phone: 608-266-4732

Back to: Madison, Wisconsin

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