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Zoo History Timeline

1904: William F. and Anna M. Vilas donate a 63-acre tract of land for Vilas Park, with the stipulation that no admission be charged. It was named in memory of the couple's son, Henry, who died at a young age five years earlier due to complications from diabetes.

1911: The Henry Vilas Zoo officially opens as the first animal exhibits are built.

1913: The first bear exhibit is built.

1914: The Madison Zoological and Aquarium Society (now called Friends of Henry Vilas Zoo), is formed to support and enhance the zoo.

1917: The zoo's first lion house is built.

1929: The zoo's primate house is built.

1937: The City of Madison assumes ownership of the zoo, Vilas Park and other parks from the Madison Park & Pleasure Drive Association.

1950: A female named Al Malaikah becomes the first dromedary camel born at the zoo.

1952: Two new grizzly bears and a polar bear bring the zoo's bear menagerie to 22.

1968: The zoo spends a record $10,000 to bring in a young pair of giraffes.

1972: The Children's Zoo opens, allowing kids to get up close and personal with a sea lion, baby elephant, fawns, bear cubs, toucans and other animals.

1973: The zoo unveils a remodeled home for its big cats, replacing the original 1917 lion house.

1977: Zoo opens its otter exhibit.

1979: Zoo opens its seal exhibit.

1983: Ownership of the Zoo is transferred from the City of Madison to Dane County, a process that takes a decade to complete.

1986: The new penguin exhibit opens.

1988: Two orphaned polar bear cubs, Nanuq and Norton, are brought to the zoo from Alaska.

1993: The Discovery Center and Herpetarium, home to slithery reptiles and amphibians, opens.

1997: The new big cat complex for Amur tigers and African lions is completed, along with a renovation of the visitor services buildings near the main zoo entrance.

1995: The primate house opens, offering a new roof over the heads of the zoo's orangutans, colobus monkeys and gibbons.

2000: A new visitors center (now named Anna Vilas Hall) opens after a $1.25 million renovation of the former Aviary. The center houses a permanent zoo history exhibit and the zoos' seasonal exhibits.

2003: The Zoo opens its new $4.2 million Tropical Rainforest Aviary and completes a concept plan for the $27 million Zoo Century capital campaign.

2006: The North American Prairie exhibit with bison, prairie dogs and a badger opens. The Conservation Carousel begins offering rides.

2007: The Children's Zoo animal exhibits (red panda, wallaby, porcupine, meerkats, and white-handed gibbons) are completed.

2008: The year-round flamingo exhibit opens. The Children's Zoo train begins to offer rides.

2009: To help Dane County through a difficult economic time, the zoological society agrees to contribute more than $500,000 more to zoo operations than originally planned.

2011: The Children’s Zoo "Red Barn" is completed. This sustainably-designed building provides the animals housed there with a top quality habitat with minimal environmental impact, and provides wonderful educational opportunities.

2013: The Animal Health Center, the zoo's state-of-the-art veterinary medical facility, opens in the spring.

2015: Construction is completed on Arctic Passage, the largest renovation the Zoo has ever done. The new exhibit complex will provide guests with many exciting features, including special conservation and sustainability components, our zoo's first indoor restaurant (The Glacier Grille), and large naturalistic new exhibits for polar bears, grizzly bears, and harbor seals.

2016: The Wisconsin Heritage Exhibit, highlighting Wisconsin's mining history and the story of Bucky Badger, opens in October. The new exhibit features the American badgers and sandhill crane.