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County Executive's Office

Dane County, "Friends of the Henry Vilas Zoo" Partner on Biggest Changes Zoo Has Seen In 102-Year History

May 29, 2013
Casey Slaughter Becker, Office of the County Executive 608.267.8823 or cell, 608.843.8858
County Executive

Redesigned Arctic Passage Unveiled; Includes New Year Round ‘Bear-Side’ Dining for Families, and Creation of Fund to Keep Zoo ‘Forever Free’ 


An expanded partnership between Dane County and the “Friends of the Zoo” will bring about the biggest changes the county’s Henry Vilas Zoo has seen in its 102 year history, with improved plans for a new bear habitat called “Arctic Passage”, an exciting new year-round dining experience for families, and a new fund to keep the zoo “forever free,” Dane County Executive Joe Parisi announced today.


The multi-year agreement negotiated by County Executive Parisi’s administration and the “Friends of the Zoo” Executive Committee will result in a guaranteed minimum of nearly $4 million in money from concessions and gift sales being dedicated to fund zoo operations in the coming years.  That includes creation of a new fund to help the zoo bring in more new animals each year, ensure the continued excellence in care of the animals and public-private cost-sharing on an estimated $11-million capital reconstruction project slated to begin late this summer.


“Thanks to the tireless work of our private partners the “Friends of the Zoo,” this agreement positions our zoo to enhance its elite reputation as one of the top free family entertainment venues in our state and region,” Parisi said.  “Together, as partners, we are moving forward creating an exciting new experience for visitors to our zoo while creatively bringing in new dollars to support these grounds for many years to come.”


The new “Arctic Passage” exhibit includes an improved design for an estimated $8.6 million, state-of-the-art facility will include a new and more expansive habitat for polar bears with an underwater viewing area that brings people even closer to one of the most majestic animals on earth.  Current plans call for breaking ground on the new facility by the end of 2013.


The exhibit will also include a new habitat for grizzlies – complete with a creek that can be stocked with fish, allowing visitors a rare chance to witness a bear capture and eat a fish for lunch.


The new exhibit will also include an estimated $2.2 million indoor/outdoor dining area with enough seating for 50 inside, and 60 outside.   This new cafeteria area will include another viewing window into the polar bear exhibit, allowing for “bear side” dining. 


Dollars raised from the enhanced year-round food and beverages sales will support not only costs associated with “Arctic Passage” but also staff and other ongoing expenses at the zoo.


"This new exhibit will provide a wonderful home for the animals and an amazing viewing experience for our visitors.  This project would not have been a possible without the wonderful support of the community and donors who provided gifts both large and small,” said Dan Olszewski, President of the Friends of the Zoo.  “The new dining space will also include indoor seating which will be a great benefit to our guests during those times when the weather is being less than cooperative."


“This new dining feature means Dane County taxpayers won’t pay to operate ‘Arctic Passage’ and it paves the way to a secure financial future for the zoo with the creation of the historic “Forever Free Fund,” Parisi said.  Under the agreement with the Friends, additional proceeds raised from dining sales will be allocated to a dedicated fund to support zoo operations and improvements.

The Forever Free Fund will provide financial stability for zoo operations for years to come, allowing the zoo to continue to update and expand exhibits, participate in species protection programs, care for its animal family, and continue to provide a great experience for families to enjoy.


The Henry Vilas Zoo is one of only ten free zoos in the entire country, and one of few  free zoos that also provides free parking for zoo guests.  Admission at the zoo has continued to climb year after year, with the zoo reaching nearly one million guests in 2012 – a zoo record. 


Dane County will fund $4 million of Arctic Passage’s design and construction costs, with the Friends of the Zoo paying the remaining balance with private donations from dedicated, generous zoo supporters.  The county will also fund the $2.2 million to design and build the new indoor/outdoor dining area attached to the exhibit.


A recent generous donation of $750,000 from an anonymous donor has helped the “Friends of the Zoo” achieve a fundraising goal allowing “Arctic Passage” to proceed.  The Friends of the Zoo will continue to look for support from private donors to install other areas of the new exhibit, including new habitats for the zoo’s harbor seals, and several small animal exhibits.


The County Executive and the Friends of the Zoo also announced a new, nearly $4 million, 5-year partnership that will further strengthen the future of the zoo, and use concession and gift store profits to offset zoo costs.  Included in the historic agreement is an annual $40,000 contribution from the Friends of the Zoo that will directly benefit the zoo’s Animal Welfare Fund, allowing the zoo more flexibility to add to its animal family.


A key component of Arctic Passage will be extensive education on the exhibit’s animals and their environment.  The polar bear faces extinction due to disappearing habitat – climate change has reduced the amount of sea ice that the animal relies on for hunting and breeding. 


The announcement was dedicated to the zoo’s female polar bear, Mishka who was humanely euthanized due  to progressively deteriorating health and quality of life in association with advanced old age. Mishka was 30 years old – the median life expectancy for female polar bears is approximately 24 years.


Beloved by zoo staff and visitors, Mishka, who was owned by the Milwaukee County Zoo, arrived at Henry Vilas Zoo in 1993. She lived with the zoo’s other polar bear, a male named Nanuq, until 2009 when he moved to Buffalo Zoo as part of the Polar Bear Species Survival Program (SSP), a cooperative effort amongst Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to help preserve endangered and threatened species.


Nanuq recently sired a female cub Luna at Buffalo Zoo in New York as part of this effort and has since moved to the Columbus Zoo in Ohio to be paired with two other female polar bears. The Henry Vilas Zoo is working closely with the Polar Bear SSP for animal needs for Arctic Passage.


“While we are sad to have said goodbye to our polar bear Mishka, we know she lived a long life, almost six years longer than expected in captivity, through the exceptional care of her zookeepers and vet staff,” said Zoo Director Ronda Schwetz.  “Knowing that, we can now move forward with a dynamic and sustainably  designed bear and seal exhibit thanks to all of the thoughtfulness our team has put into the redesign.  By building a concessions with indoor seating that looks onto the bear exhibit, not only are we creating a dynamic experience for the visitors, but we are ensuring our ability to sustain operations of the largest expansion in the zoo’s history.”

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