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Dane County names consultant to advise Vilas Zoo as contract with nonprofit partner expires

March 26, 2019

A consultant with extensive experience working with zoos and aquariums will advise Dane County officials as the Vilas Zoo’s contract with its fundraising partner expires.

Dane County officials said Monday that Mike Gill, a consultant with more than 40 years of experience working with zoos and aquariums, will work with the county as it takes over fundraising duties and additional operations from the Henry Vilas Zoological Society. The county’s contract with the nonprofit expires on Sunday and was not renewed.

The county has maintained that the society has stashed too much money — more than $6 million, much of that in endowment and reserve funds — that county zoo staff can’t access, and should be spent on the zoo. It has also raised concerns about excessive staffing costs and accreditation requirements, saying more society money should have been used to hire zookeepers.

The contract’s expiration will end a more than 100-year relationship with the admission-free zoo. The society manages fundraising and operates the zoo’s concessions, carousel and train ride.

Carousel rides in April will be free “as an expression of gratitude to the community’s continuing support of the zoo,” the county also said Monday.

Gill and a team of experts will advise the zoo on effective fundraising partnerships and issue a report, as well as guide the county as it seeks applications from potential support organizations.

Gill worked with the Vilas Zoo in the early 2000s to review its food and gift operations, the county said.

“We look forward to having Mike Gill come back to the Henry Vilas Zoo and provide his expertise during this transition period,” said Joseph Darcangelo, the zoo’s deputy director. “This framework the team develops will help guide us when we establish a relationship with a future fundraising partner.”

County and zoo officials didn’t immediately respond to questions on Monday evening about how much they’re paying Gill.

The county also said it hopes the society will work with it during the consulting process. It also said the society could apply to be the zoo’s fundraising partner when the consulting process is completed.

But Amy Supple, vice chairwoman of the society’s board, said it would be nearly impossible for the society to participate in the process because it will no longer have employees when the contract ends.

The society’s board will likely remain intact to help manage a trust fund of remaining society money with the county.

During contract negotiations, Supple said the county denied a society proposal to continue fundraising for the zoo during the consulting process.

“If this was the path the county wanted to go down,” she said. “I wish they announced it sooner.”

Supple said the society has a history of successful fundraising, adding that it’s unfortunate that the zoo goes into the summer season without a fundraising organization.

Over the past 10 years, the society has donated about $17 million to the zoo for operations, programs and improvements.

“We don’t think that the consultant is necessary,” she said. “We don’t think another model is really necessary.”