Dane County, Wisconsin, is moving forward to replace the Henry Vilas Zoological Society (HVZS), its fundraising and grounds operating partner for the last 103 years, having decided to part ways during a long antagonistic negotiating process. Still, some remain skeptical about whether or not the nonprofit divorce is the right move.
The shift has been said to have been sparked by a review of the zoo itself, which is run by the county, by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Though the review did raise concerns about future accreditation, HVZS’s zoological vice chair Amy Supple said “the AZA has never mentioned an issue with the nonprofit’s grounds operation or fundraising.”
Documents recently obtained by News 3 Now show the AZA had animal welfare concerns, listing animals spending too much time in small or sparse areas and insufficient veterinary coverage among its “major concerns” at the zoo.
“The report actually lauds our role and the successes that we’ve had. So not having us as a partner actually could be detrimental to the AZA accreditation and not the reverse,” said Supple.
That important point may be lost in this contentious process. The county knows it needs a partner, but instead of working it out with HVZS, with which it has been in contract negotiations for 10 months and which has extended its attention to other animal-related groups in the region, it will hire new staff for the zoo and contract with a new concession provider. It will also hire a consultant for advice about best practices in establishing partnerships.
Maybe that is what it will take to break up the logjam, but there is plenty of potential for further drama here, in our opinion. Even this morning, an op-ed written by Jim Hegenbarth, president and CEO of Park Bank, a corporate donor to the zoo, quibbles ably with the math being done by the county and presented to the public and suggests that a mediator, rather than a consultant, be hired.
Upon severing the relationship, slated for March 31st, four days from this writing, all of the money raised by the HVZS for the zoo must be distributed to a new zoo trust that has been established. Once the funds are placed in the trust, the money can only be used to support zoo operations and any lingering zoo-related obligations of HVZS.
Meanwhile, Dane County is pursuing HVZS for continued assistance for a smooth transition, including access to a list of zoo volunteers, which has not been shared with staff. There were issues with communication and coordination of the volunteers during the latest zoo accreditation review. The county reports that they have met with HVZS representatives almost seven hours in the last week about the trust and continuing the fundraising portion of the relationship.
This situation reminds us of the lockout at the Minnesota Orchestra in terms of the potential for discord played out publicly, but this time with the well-being of animals hanging in the balance.—Marian Conway and Ruth McCambridge