The Vilas Zoo's Education Garden is Good for the Animals

The Vilas Zoo feeds the animals healthy, locally-grown food—right from their own garden

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you feed a radish to a bear? If reptiles like broccoli? Or what goats consider the genuine article? Google away, curious readers. Or better yet, visit the new children’s area at the Henry Vilas Zoo and stop by the Lussier Education Garden where the answers to these questions and more can be found neatly printed on little signs staked along rows of fruit and vegetables.

The kid-friendly signs read: “Strawberry—eaten by primates, bears and humans,” reads one. Or: “Broccoli—fed to reptiles, boys, girls and primates.” And then there’s this one: “Radish—bears like these.” Zoo director Jim Hubing should be running the school lunch program.

He’s pulled off something the schools have been struggling with for years—feeding his charges healthy, local, sustainably grown food. The only thing missing is a farmers’ market where Mr. and Mrs. Giraffe and the little giraffes would visit with their locally made willow shopping baskets, which they would promptly eat after use.

This is the second major growing season for the garden. This year’s additions include two apple trees, two additional cherry and pear trees, a fig tree and wild rice and cranberries in their own special bog. It’s the brainchild of Hubing, the former Dane County Department of Administration director who in the last ten years has become one of the most respected zoo directors in the country.

“I had the idea to do this in this space,” Hubing says of the garden. “Jack (Lussier) is a very strong advocate for education, and he funded it.” The garden is a perfect complement to the major renovation and additions to the children’s area of the zoo—on any given day one of the most popular places for families, school classes, impromptu trips by child-care providers and curious kids in the area. And it’s a
perfect complement to the mission of the zoo as well.

“It’s all part of our conservation message,” says Hubing, “that you can grow your own food. Our reason for being is to teach people to conserve our natural resources, and that includes growing food.”

That conservation message is an integral part of how the zoo functions day to day. For example when the children’s zoo expanded all the plants were saved and replanted. But it’s the integration of growing food for the animals into that conservation message that makes for such a teachable moment. “You’ll see parents of younger children point out, ‘that’s what a grape looks like, or, that’s what bamboo looks like,’” says Hubing. “But you’ll also hear older kids telling their parents what a fruit or vegetable looks like when it’s growing.”

Hubing says the real heroes of this story are master gardeners Stan and Nancy Skolaski. Like all those who work on the physical upkeep of the grounds (with the exception of Hubing, who is indeed as hands-on as a zoo director can be) the Skolaskis are volunteers. There’s no staff landscaper. But you’d never know that by the beauty of it, and that includes that neat, orderly and lovingly tended garden. There are beans, onions, Swiss chard, cucumber, elderberry, raspberry, summer squash, peppers (“fed to primates, boys and girls”)millet for birds and cabbage for goats. Hubing says you’ll see willow in the feeders in the giraffe yard. And the bamboo? “That,” says Hubing, “is for the red panda.” Red pandas love bamboo.

There likely will be additions, Hubing tells us: “It’s always a work in progress.” But it’s a successful work already. Locally grown food is good for animals, too. Zoos are all about conservation, and conservation includes growing your own food. And don’t you just love knowing that potatoes are “enjoyed by the bears?”

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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