Dane County Board orders outside investigation of racism, animal mistreatment at Madison zoo

Board supervisors approve $50K to hire retired judge to investigate allegations

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A green archway displays the words "Dane County Henry Vilas Zoo"
A sign at the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Allegations of racism and retaliation against union activity and animal neglect at Madison’s Henry Vilas Zoo has led the Dane County Board of Supervisors to approve an outside investigation led by a retired judge.

During the board’s meeting on Thursday, supervisors voted 25-7 to approve a resolution to spend $50,000 on a special investigator charged with investigating allegations detailed in a Wisconsin State Journal article following the resignation of the zoo’s only Black zookeepers.

It stated that the former zookeepers and other staff witnessed animals die because of management decisions, a deputy director using a racial epithet and unfair treatment and retaliation aimed at those voicing concerns to management.

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The resolution states the outside investigator will be a retired judge charged with investigating allegations of racism, retaliation for union activity, retaliation for whistleblowing, unequal disciplining of employees, hostile work environment and animal neglect.

Dane County Board Supervisor Tim Kiefer authored the resolution. He said he’s already been in contact with retired judges who may be interested in conducting such an investigation.

“I don’t know if those allegations are true or not true,” Kiefer said. “The goal of the independent investigation is to have a respected, retired circuit court judge who’s independent of the county come in and do the research and do the investigation and get to the bottom of it and issue a report.”

Henry Vilas Zoo conservation education curator Jess Thompson said staff work hard to provide the best possible care for animals. She noted the zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, “which is really the gold standard in animal care and welfare.”

“Unfortunately, there were a lot of inaccuracies that were published in that article,” Thompson said of the State Journal report. “We take the allegations very seriously and we’re definitely open to communicating and being transparent with anybody and everybody.”

The investigative report will be due by Oct. 1, according to the resolution. Kiefer called it a fairly tight timeline aimed at giving the county board time to review findings as it drafts a county budget this fall.

“If there needs to be a response, the best time to do it is during the budget process,” Kiefer said.

While the resolution passed with wide support among county board supervisors, a signature from Dane County Executive Joe Parisi is required before the investigation can begin. A Wisconsin State Journal article on the vote noted Parisi had been in favor of commissioning an outside investigation but was opposed to hiring an outside judge to conduct it.

Kiefer said in his 10 years on the county board there have been only one or two resolution vetoes by a county executive.

“I certainly hope and expect he’s going to sign it,” Kiefer said. “I think it would be very unfortunate if he decided to veto it, and I think that would set up a needless conflict.”

In a statement sent to WPR Friday afternoon, Parisi criticized the county board’s decision to hire a retired judge to conduct the zoo investigation.

“No bid contracts entered into behind closed doors with no public process is counterintuitive to the shared goals of restoring public trust at the zoo,” Parisi said. “Wisconsin’s Gableman Trump election probe was born in the exact same fashion.”

Parisi’s statement did not say whether he would veto the resolution authorizing the investigation.

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