Dane Co. Board approves independent investigation into Henry Vilas Zoo

MADISON, Wis. — The Dane County Board has approved a resolution to establish an independent investigation into Henry Vilas Zoo looking into allegations of racism and animal mistreatment.

The resolution passed with a 25-to-7 vote, with one board supervisor abstaining. A retired circuit court judge will now lead the investigation that must be completed by October 1.

The resolution says the judge must investigate allegations of racism by zoo management and allegations that zoo animals have been mistreated or neglected, but the scope of the investigation is not limited to those topics. The board also wants the investigation to look into allegations of retaliation for union activity, retaliation for whistleblowing, unequal discipline for employees, and a hostile work environment.

The judge would be paid no more than $50,000 to conduct the investigation.

“I’m pleased we are moving forward with this investigation. We need to restore public trust and confidence in a destination that is valued by the community,” County Board Chair Patrick Miles said in a statement released after the vote. “I believe this groundwork will help ensure that all zoo employees are treated with respect, and that we are treating the animals at the zoo 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.”

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi must now sign the resolution. Parisi told News 3 Now that he wants a county-wide investigation into the racial climate of Dane County workplaces. His initial plan for that expansive investigation would cost around $150,000.