Henry Vilas Zoo’s 100th Anniversary an Occasion to Celebrate and Donate

photo courtesy of Henry Vilas Zoo

The most recent IB100 survey was more encouraging when it came to anticipated business levels in charitable contributions, and one very worthy recipient for mounting generosity would be the Henry Vilas Zoo.

The facility is in fund-raising mode, but that’s been the case at every point of its 100-year existence. The free-admission zoo actually is in perpetual fund-raising mode because, as a condition of the deed of the gift that the Vilas family gave in 1904 to establish Vilas Park and ultimately the zoo, no admission will ever be charged.

“Because of the Vilas gift, it can never be an admission zoo, which creates some hardships, obviously,” said zoo supporter Richard Zillman, who doubles of president and creative director for Zillman Idea Design.

“That makes it a challenge for us to raise funds, and it makes us focus perpetually upon that.”

Centennial Celebration

The zoo, which officially opened in 1911, has big plans for its centennial year, particularly the period from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Zoo backers are making an appeal to the Greater Madison business community for cash and in-kind donations.

Its current fund-raising focus is two-fold. First, the zoo has contributed 50% of all new construction costs for new exhibits. That’s the primary role for Friends of the Zoo, former known as the Henry Vilas Zoological Society.

The Friends are in the final throes of a fund-raising campaign that began about six years ago to raise funds for, among other things, the Arctic Passage, an exhibit that will rebuild the southwestern portion of the zoo to house its state-of-the-art polar bear, caribou, and harbor seals exhibit. It will include a replica of an arctic explorer ship frozen into the ice, and underwater viewing of the seals and the polar bears.

Dane County has authorized its half of the funding, and zoo has gone ahead with construction, knowing it still has some fund-raising to do to meet its half of the obligation. “We know that our donor base has been very supportive in the past,” Zillman noted, “and we can raise the additional $3 million to make sure it’s fully paid for.”

The second reason for perpetual fund-raising is the Friends also contribute to the operating cost of the zoo. Starting this year, at the request of the County, the zoo has increased its percentage of fiscal funding by doubling it to roughly $650,000 a year — enough for zookeepers and support staff to run the facility. That commitment will rise every year in the future.

“We operate the concessions at the zoo, both the food courts and the gift shop,” Zillman explained. “Several years ago, we built a carousel that gives $1 rides to the kids, and put in a zoo train that slowly takes people around for a nominal fee.”

From the business community, the zoo looks for cash, in-kind donations, and bequests from people as part of their estates, or Foundation giving. Some companies encourage their employees to donate their time at the zoo. “We have a very active volunteer group who donate a great deal of time and energy to keep our information kiosks peopled and our other activities humming,” Zillman said. “Typically, they help out in the carousel area and as monitors in the children’s zoo play area, as well as answering phones and stamping letters and the like.”

According to Zillman, the zoo has enjoyed generous support from the business community, and several area executives have served on its board. He specifically cited Shirley Kubly of Swiss Colony, who has been a board member and an active as a donor for years. Tom Walker, while not a board member, has been exceedingly generous, not only with family money but with on air promotions for zoo activities through Midwest Family stations.

Tom Dott, senior vice president of Associated Bank, now serves as president of the zoo board, and he has been active in meeting with potential donors and trying to build the zoo’s endowment so that it can afford various new exhibits.

Dott noted that business community can contribute by having employees become part of the volunteer corps at various events, contribute in-kind products or services to silent and/or live auctions, and consider sponsoring parts (air fare and lodging) of a possible excursion to Churchill, Manitoba to view polar bears in the wild.

He called the mandated free admission both a blessing and a curse, noting that it was one of the reasons cited for Madison’s high ranking (7th place) in Yahoo Real Estate’s “Best Cities to Move To” listing.

“We hope people understand that our zoo is expensive and high quality, we certainly intend to maintain that, and that takes resources,” Dott stated.

Zoo History

William F. Vilas served with the Union Army during the Civil War, as Secretary of the Interior under President Grover Cleveland, and eventually as a United States Senator representing Wisconsin. In 1904, William and wife Anna Vilas donated a 63-acre tract of land in Madison for a park and zoo, with the stipulation that no admission be charged. The zoo was named in memory of the couple’s son, Henry, who died at a young age due to complications from diabetes.

Today, Henry Vilas Zoo attracts 725,000 visitors annually, an estimated 40% from outside of Dane County. While the zoo cannot charge admission, it does have a gift shop and concessions, and it offers rental opportunities. People also can donate online, earning various Friends memberships — from a $1,000 Ambassador to a $20 student and senior citizen membership — and even befriend an animal. Area businesses provide the food, medicines, services, and construction activities that keep the facility going, so its economic impact is hardly trivial.

The centennial observance taking place from Memorial Day to Labor Day — about 100 days to celebrate 100 years — will feature something virtually every day. “There is a long list of activities that are on the drawing board that will, I hope, give people a reason to visit,” Zillman said. “Other than the fact there are marvelous animals to meet up close, people come to learn about stewardship of the animals and about what we are doing to shepard their genes.”

The stars of the show are the cat family, including the lions Henry and Vilas, plus Cyber the Tiger, but the kingdom might soon also be blessed with a baby red panda because it is breeding a pair now and, according to Zillman, “they are awfully cute.”

“It’s a marvelous place for families of lower income or those who are struggling in these difficult economic times to have some place to take their children that is completely free,” Zillman stated. “We don’t even charge for parking, and we permit anyone to bring in a lunch, and it’s just fabulous to see the kids and families visit the zoo to enjoy what we can offer that few other places can.”

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