County leaders hear findings from investigation of Henry Vilas Zoo

Henry Vilas Zoo Entrance
WISC-TV/Channel 3000

MADISON, Wis. — The retired Dane County judge tasked with conducting an independent investigation into allegations of racism and animal mistreatment at the Henry Vilas Zoo laid out her findings to the county board’s Committee of the Whole Thursday evening.

Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn’s report, released last month, concluded there were no actionable legal issues at the zoo but did uncover concerns about favoritism and work culture.

RELATED: Independent investigation of Henry Vilas Zoo finds no evidence of discrimination

The zoo’s rapid growth — staffing nearly doubled between 2018 and 2022 — contributed to a number of growing pains at the same time the COVID-19 pandemic was causing additional pressure, Bailey-Rihn said.

The zoo is working to address perceptions of favoritism in discipline by implementing a “just cause” discipline method that encourages people to report mistakes to prevent them from happening again. It is also moving ahead with a plan to address workplace culture issues, she said.

“If there’s one thing that the zoo needs, it’s a team approach because you’re dealing with animals that are taken care of by the zookeepers. They know these animals inside out. They also need help if they’re doing other things,” Bailey-Rihn told the committee.

The retired judge also highlighted the recommendations from her report, including that the zoo’s organizational chart be restructured and that input from zookeepers and others be gathered on key decisions.

Click or tap here to read the full report.