Brent Walter: Society has done great things for Henry Vilas Zoo

March 21, 2019

I write with great disappointment in response to Sunday’s article “ County ending partnership with nonprofit group at Vilas Zoo, changing zoo operations,” about contract negotiations between Dane County and the Henry Vilas Zoological Society.

I began working at the zoological society in 1988 in guest services and am now the senior vice president of operations. The year I started at the society, we opened a new concession area, which was recently replaced with new restrooms. We grew our business over the last 25 years by more than 700 percent. We have employed over 1,000 visitor services employees in my time at the zoo in concessions and at the gift shop. We have had the privilege of offering many high school and college-aged students their first job.

Over the years, I have seen guests come on a regular schedule that I have come to know very well and am excited to see — whether it was the grandmother bringing her grandchild every day for 10-plus years, the kids from the neighborhood who often walked through the zoo, or the gentleman who came every Friday for a chocolate ice cream cone.

As the Henry Vilas Zoological Society continued to grow, I assumed more responsibility, and always was proud to continue to help the zoo and its mission. I have seen the society financially support the building of the primate building, big cat area, gift shop, remodel of the giraffe barn, the Children’s Zoo, the North American Prairie exhibit, the Arctic Passage and the Wisconsin Heritage exhibit. We also have created and sustained many fundraising events that help to support the zoo, including Halloween at the Zoo, which we have done for 30-plus years, the Zoo Run Run, our holiday Zoo Lights, and many more.

As the unofficial historian of the zoo, I know the original birdhouse, primate building and lion house were donated through the support of the society, starting back in 1914. Many of the animals that people remember so fondly were brought to the Henry Vilas Zoo through the support of the zoological society, including Annie the elephant and Gracie and George the rhinos. I have been so lucky to have personal relationships with people who have extremely close ties to the Henry Vilas Zoo, including the daughter of the first zoo director, who makes a special trip to the zoo each year to visit me.

On a more personal level, the zoo has been a very important part of my life. My father worked as a zoo keeper for more than 30 years. My godfather worked at the zoo for nearly 40 years, and I have made hundreds of friends from around the country through my work at the zoo. Most importantly, I met my wife at the zoo over 20 years ago.

It’s a sad day when Dane County now believes the Henry Vilas Zoological Society is not looking out for the best interests of the zoo.