Zoological Society defends handling of visitor donations; Dane County Sheriff’s Office investigating

The former nonprofit operator of the Henry Vilas Zoo is defending the way it handled visitor donations.

The Henry Vilas Zoological Society issued a statement Thursday regarding an investigation by the Dane County Sheriff’s Office and a report published Wednesday by the Isthmus, which you can read here.

County officials said they are worried that hundreds of thousands of dollars, donated through various donor tubes located throughout the zoo, are missing.

“We want the public to know that we are just as concerned as they may be,” said Henry Vilas Zoo executive director Ronda Schwetsz. “We are taking this very seriously. We are safeguarding every donation that we have, and we have a very strong process in place.”

The Henry Vilas Zoological Society managed the donation tubes until this year. Dane County resumed responsibility after the county and nonprofit parted ways.

Anywhere from $40,000 to $88,000 was collected in the tubes each year from 2011 to 2018. This year, the county reports it collected $192,000.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said, “Shortly after the county began collecting money from the donation tubes which was previously done by the Zoological Society, staff began to notice a difference in the amount they had been collecting at the zoo versus the amount that had been previously reported by the society.”

The Henry Vilas Zoological Society called the accusations “thinly veiled” as part of the statement it issued Thursday and said the suggestion is “part of a campaign to tarnish the reputation of Society.”

The society’s president, Tom Hanson, said the money has been accounted for in financial documents. Hanson used to serve as the nonprofit’s treasurer.

Donor tubes have been in existence for several years at the zoo, according to the society, but greeter boxes were added in 2015 as an additional fundraising effort. Greeter boxes are the see-through acrylic boxes at zoo entrances.

“I’ve never heard the term greeter boxes before so from my understanding all of the donation tubes are one and the same. They’re for donations,” Schwetz said.

The society also said it learned about the Sheriff’s Office’s investigation through the comments made by the Dane County Executive’s Office to the Isthmus.

“We welcome the opportunity to aid the Sheriff’s Office in this investigation and bring this matter to closure as soon as possible,” the Society said in Thursday’s release.

The zoo has also responded to the report with a post on Facebook, saying staff are concerned with the issues raised in the article, but are not going to make assumptions while the investigation is ongoing.

“The donations that have been collected since our separation from the society are the most secure and transparent they’ve ever been,” the zoo said in the post. “We can all rest assured current donations are directly benefiting our zoo.”

Schwetz added, “I think when you go from $41,000 to $200,000 in the following year, you have to look at that. Something is going on. To think that those donations are going anywhere else is something I just can’t fathom. We are looking at what’s happening and making sure nothing like this ever happens again.”

The Sheriff’s Office would not comment on the ongoing investigation.

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