Report analyzes equity, disability access at Henry Vilas Zoo, Dane County parks

MADISON Wis. — Dane County has released the results and recommendations of an independent study into how to make the Henry Vilas Zoo and county parks more equitable and accessible to all visitors.

The study looked at who is — and who is not — using the zoo and parks, Lisa MacKinnon, the sustainability and program evaluation coordinator for the Office of the Dane County Board, said.

While the report comes just months after the zoo was making headlines for allegations of racism and animal mistreatment among management, MacKinnon stressed to News 3 Now Tuesday that that is a separate independent investigation.

“That started about a week and a half ago,” she said.

RELATED: Dane Co. Board approves independent investigation into Henry Vilas Zoo

“I heard that the zoo management and staff are eager to talk to the investigator and they will make findings and recommendations I think when the project is over,” she said.

The equity evaluation by the outside group Keen Independent Research outlined nine recommendations after collecting 600 survey responses from stakeholders as well as visitors. 

One guest recommended partnering with organizations that work with communities of color but also giving them more transportation and access to parks and the zoo. 

“They affirmed that the zoo and the parks are already doing a lot around equity and access in terms of their programming, in terms of their communication,”’ MacKinnon said, “but there was room for even more innovative practices and improvement and addressing some gaps.”  

The language barrier was also a gap for Dane County residents who may be more comfortable with information in Spanish, Hmong, or other languages.  

“Some of those areas of recommendation are more consistent language access programs at parks and zoos,” MacKinnon said, “and that would be around communicating in a multilingual fashion more consistently in newsletters and signage at the zoo and at the parks.”   

To be more accessible to people with disabilities, the report recommended more adaptive equipment and signs for larger slopes or tougher terrain.

“Another recommendation was to partner more robustly with community organizations that serve individuals with disabilities,” MacKinnon said.

It’s also recommended to reach more people with sensory needs,  like headphones or quieter spaces at times.  

“There was some discussion around providing badges or buttons to identify for people who would like to identify as people with sensory sensitivities,” MacKinnon said, “as well as buttons for staff who are trained.”  

According to MacKinnon, it’s important to ensure all communities feel welcome in recreational areas.

The county and the zoo are looking at what action comes out of the evaluation, she added.

Read the full report here.