A Blue-Ribbon Zoo

The Henry Vilas Zoo is part of the less than ten percent of the approximately 2,400 licensed animal exhibitors in the U.S. that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. But with budgets shrinking, the AZA’s stamp of approval becomes even more important.

Aug 12, 2009

A summer day at the zoo is as authentic as the Raffi song describing that very situation. There are monkeys swingin’, crocodiles swimmin’ and, if you pay enough attention, children learnin’. But the zoo is more than a faux Serengeti with Plexiglas and handrails for Discovery Channel-style gawking; they’re about education, conservation and preservation. Madison’s Henry Vilas Zoo is no exception, working diligently to hold itself to the highest standards in the industry: those of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). But gaining their favor is no easy task, and the Vilas Zoo’s AZA accreditation is a testament to the greatness of Madison’s animal sanctuary.

“Part of being an accredited zoo … is connecting people with animals”

According to the AZA’s Web site of the approximately 2,400 licensed animal exhibitors in the United States, less than ten percent of them are accredited. With numbers like that, one might question the legitimacy of accreditation. But if the work involved is any indication, the AZA is the Olympic committee of animal care.

“It’s about a six month to a year process, and the application is, I’d say, around four hundred pages long,” says Jim Hubing, director of the Vilas Zoo. “They send another director, a veterinarian and two animal care experts and they go through every part of the institution. After the inspection, you go to the accreditation commission, and they decide to either continue your accreditation or tell you where you need to improve.” All of a sudden, the bar exam doesn’t look like such a marathon, especially because every five years an AZA zoo will go through the process again.

To achieve accreditation, a zoo must demonstrate excellence is a wide range of fields, from the health, nutrition, and social groupings of the animals to the commitment to conservation, educational, and guest services, according to the association’s Web site. No stone is left unturned and no pen goes unchecked. But if the road to accreditation seems grueling, the rewards for becoming a member are well worth the carpal tunnel and stress.Jim Hubing is director of the Vilas Zoo.

The AZA provides a unique avenue for cooperation between accredited zoos, an advantage that allows Madisonians to enjoy some of Vilas’ most exciting animals. Sweta and Zawadi, giraffes from the Minnesota Zoo, make Madison home every winter because Vilas can offer the year-round accommodations that the animals need.

More often, animals are moved to different zoos to promote breeding and to ensure the survival of the species. Such was the case when Vilas moved its Massasagua rattler— one of Wisconsin’s two venomous snakes—to Chicago’s Lincoln Park or its polar bear to the Buffalo Zoo. As Hubing notes, “that’s part of being an accredited zoo. Your mission is connecting people with animals and helping them understand that these animals are highly endangered.”

Of course, being a member of the AZA goes far beyond swapping animals like baseball cards. As previously mentioned, much of what Vilas does and what the AZA pushes is the education of the patrons. Every summer, the Vilas Zoo runs programs for over fifty thousand young people, teaching about animal diets and special care needs. Staffers at Vilas assist with the summer’s Zoo School, where children “get a chance to learn about animals; in one of the classes they actually get to make enrichment treats for the great apes,” according to Hubing.

Keeping Up a Free Zoo

One could easily spend an entire day discussing the seemingly endless merits of the AZA, but brevity suggests that simply one more will suffice. With most state and local governments either penniless or in the red, it can be difficult for public institutions like the Vilas Zoo to stay afloat. While operating costs are covered by government funds— eighty percent come from Dane County with the other twenty percent coming directly from the city of Madison—any additional money for improvements or research must be obtained through other means. Fortunately, AZA accreditation allows for increased eligibility to alternate sources of funds, such as grants.

It’s not easy to run a top-notch facility on a shoestring budget, and the AZA works to alleviate such issues. Running a zoo is much closer to conducting a circus than owning a pet store. Penguins and tigers aren’t native to Wisconsin for a reason, and keeping them safe and healthy could not be of greater importance. This is why the bar is set so high, and why continued excellence is such a grand achievement.

Madison’s Vilas Zoo is a standard-bearer because its staff puts in the necessary work to make it an enviable facility. A good zoo should be full of interesting animals, but it should also be bursting with information and a willingness to expand the fields of animal research. Because of the AZA and its rigid accreditation process, these lofty goals become a reality on a daily basis.


Sean Kittridge is an intern at Madison Magazine.

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