History of the Vilas Zoo
On June 30, 1904, Col. William F. and Anna M. Vilas gave a large tract of land to the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association "for the uses and purposes of a public park and pleasure ground." From 1905 through 1910, the Vilas family donated an additional $42,000 for improvements, and public donations of $10,000 were raised for the enlargement and improvement of the park. The park was named in memory of the Vilas' son, Henry, who died at a young age due to complications from diabetes. In 1911, the first animal exhibits were created, representing the start of the Henry Vilas Zoo.
In 1995, state-of-the-art habitats are built for Great Apes and Primates - chimpanzee, orangautan, and red-tailed lemur.
In what has proved to be a defining and truly visionary move, the Vilas Family stipulated that the park always be admission free. As the zoo developed within the park, it too remained free. Today it's an extraordinary asset that few communities our size can claim. Indeed, our Zoo is one of only a few no-admission, free parking AZA accredited zoos nationwide.
In 1983, the Zoo was identified as a regional community that could be better served by county operations. The Zoo (approximately 28 acres) was "separated" from the city-owned park (about 50 acres), and a County Zoo Commission was formed. Dane County now operates the zoo, contributing 80 percent of the operating funds while the City of Madison contributes 20 percent.
HENRY VILAS PARK ZOOLOGICAL SOCIETY
In 1997, an expanded Big Cat exhibit opens for the African Lion and Amur Tiger.
The Madison Zoological and Aquarium Society was organized in 1914, shortly after the zoo was founded. In 1926, the Society was reorganized as the Henry Vilas Park Zoological Society, which continues today. In 1964, the society was incorporated as a non-profit corporation. The society's purpose is to build community support and provide funding for zoo improvements. This includes the acquisition, conservation, and replacement of animals; refurbishing and creating new exhibits; supporting educational programs; and improving the overall educational and recreational value of the zoo. The Zoological Society contributes generously to the Zoo's operating budget.
The society has been instrumental in providing funding for many zoo improvements, generally in partnership with the County and City.
In 2003, a walk-through Tropical Rainforest is completed, home to Flora and Fauna of South America.
In recent years lots of exciting exhibits have popped up at the zoo. We added the Children's Zoo in 1980 and the new penguin exhibit in 1986. In 1992 the Discovery Center/Herpetarium opened, marking the zoo's first hands-on educational facility with space for indoor classes.
Over the last eight years our ReZOOvenation project created the Discovering Primates Complex, Big Cat Complex and Visitor Center. The Zoo entrance, gift shop and concessions area have all been tastefully replaced. The last phase of ReZOOvenation was the Tropical Rain Forest Aviary, which opened to the public in June of 2003.
Having just reached our 100th anniversary, many improvements are underway here at the Henry Vilas Zoo as we prepare to be a world-class destination for another 100 years. The most recent updates to the zoo include the Animal Health Center (2013) and the Arctic Passage (2015).