Bear habitat to help keep zoo free for attendees

Vilas to add 'Arctic Passage' exhibit, 'bear-side' dining

A new exhibit at Henry Vilas zoo will offer “bear-side” dining and an opportunity zoo officials said could keep the zoo free to attendees.

The design for the estimated $8.6 million state-of-the-art facility “Arctic Passage” exhibit includes an underwater viewing area. The addition will include an expansive habitat for polar bears plus a creek stocked with fish for grizzlies, allowing visitors a rare chance to witness a bear catch and eat a fish.

An estimated $2.2 million dining area with seating for 50 inside and 60 outside will also be nearby. The cafeteria area will include a viewing window into the polar bear exhibit, allowing for what project representatives called bear-side dining.

In addition to the new animal homes at the zoo and an enhanced observation experience for zoo-goers, the eatery near the Arctic Passage exhibit will offer an additional benefit: a funding avenue to keep the zoo free, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said in a news release Wednesday.

Under the county’s agreement with the Friends of Henry Vilas Zoo group, dollars raised from the year-round food and beverage sales will support costs associated with the Arctic Passage, staff and other ongoing expenses at the zoo. Additional proceeds raised will flow to a dedicated fund to support zoo operations and improvements.

“It paves the way to a secure financial future for the zoo with the creation of the historic ‘Forever Free Fund,'” Parisi said.

Dane County will pay $4 million toward the new bear habitat plus $2.2 million for the bear-side restaurant. The Friends of Henry Vilas Zoo will provide the remaining funds.

Plans call for breaking ground on the new facility by the end of 2013.