‘People are getting emotional’: Longtime employees at the zoo unsure if they will have a job April 1

County's contract with nonprofit expires March 31
‘People are getting emotional’: Longtime employees at the zoo unsure if they will have a job April 1

Dane County is ending its partnership with the Henry Vilas Zoological Society, the nonprofit that fundraises for the zoo and employs people to work the concessions and attractions. Dozens of employees are unsure if they will have a job once the current contract expires at the end of the month.

“If I wasn’t able to work here it would be devastating, to be honest. The reason I’ve stayed here for so long is because I love our zoo and it’s just a part of me,” said James Scott, food services manager at Henry Vilas Zoo.

He started working concessions in high school and has been employed by the zoological society for 11 years.

“The people who work here, all of our staff, love the zoo. People that I’ve talked to about it, people are getting emotional,” said Scott.

The county has been negotiating with the zoological society for almost a year, but Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said the two weren’t able to get a number of issues resolved.

“We’ve come to a point where the current arrangement kind of is untenable and what’s best for the future of the zoo is that we move forward in a different path,” said Parisi.

He said visitors won’t notice a difference at the zoo, but behind the scenes the county will be changing the way it collects money and who it partners with to raise money.

He said under the control of the zoological society in recent years, money donated at the zoo was being put in accounts inaccessible to the zoo.

“Right now to the best of our knowledge, there is about $6 million in one account, but then there’s also an account that’s an endowment that we really don’t have a lot of information about. And we’re not accusing anyone of any wrongdoing, we’re just concerned about the lack of transparency,” said Parisi.

In a letter asking Parisi to reconsider, the zoological society said, “The purpose of these funds is to provide a safety net to ensure the long-term financial stability of the Zoo.”

The letter says the county’s zoo director attended meeting where these funds were discussed.

On April 1st, the way @HenryVilasZoo collects money will change. The county is ending its longtime relationship with the zoological society. The county will take over collecting the money at the zoo & find another nonprofit to fundraise. #News3Now pic.twitter.com/5vfWYImLEH

— Amanda Quintana (@AmandaQTV) March 18, 2019

“We’re surprised that we’d want to end this successful relationship because in this last five years in particular, it has been nothing but successful,” said Amy Supple, vice chair of the zoological society.

Parisi said his office is “making arrangements” so people visiting the zoo on April 1 will not notice a difference.

Employees like Scott aren’t sure if that includes a job for them.

“For right now I’m just going about it day to day trying not to think about it too much and focus on what’s important which for me is to keep the zoo running well,” said Scott.

Supple said if the contract expires, the zoological society will continue in some form, but they will have to let many of their 13 full-time and 62 part-time employees go.

“There’s one gentleman who has actually worked there for 31 years and his father worked there before him. He loved the zoo and literally will be without a job in two weeks,” said Supple.

We should also mention that WISC-TV has a joint marketing agreement with the Friends of the Henry Vilas Zoo which includes various things like sponsorship of zoo events and the weather camera that you see on the air.

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