The Not-So-Perfect Henry Vilas Zoo

As a kid, I loved going to the zoo. What kid doesn’t, really? The institutions are basically built for children, and yet everyone, big or small, has some level of fascination for exotic animals. A few weekends ago I went to the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin. My mother had told me she was going to take my grandparents and I jumped at the chance to, in a way, revisit my childhood. I could not wait to experience that sense of wonder again. Now as an adult in museum studies, my perspective and thoughts on zoos have changed.

The Henry Villas Zoo has always boasted about its free admission. This obviously allows for people of all financial backgrounds to enjoy the zoo. The economic aspect of a Zoo is definitely not something I considered when I was little. But a zoo with an admissions price, just like an museum-like establishment, limits and makes elite the people who can visit. The Henry Villas Zoo is sure to avoid this issue as it does not even charge for parking. Free admission has its problems as well though. No admission fees mean less money for the zoo. I can remember many enclosures, such as all of the bears, which were open when I was little, that no longer exist. Donations have to be lucrative.

The Henry Vilas Zoo has other problems as well. I found handicap accessibility to be lacking. My grandpa is essentially bound to his wheelchair. I pushed him around a lot myself that day. The Henry Vilas Zoo can congratulate itself on not having any stairs, however, there are many little aesthetic hills. Pushing my grandfather up a hill is not exactly easy. If it had just been my grandma with him, there is no way she would have been able to get my grandpa everywhere. The hills are inconvenient for families with young children as well. I saw many parents pushing strollers. And while pushing a baby or toddler is no where near as strenuous as pushing a grown man, the incline is still inconvenient. Unlike at an actual museum, which is indoors, different levels can not be conquered by elevators. The problem continues though as strollers are not even allowed into some of the special houses, i.e. the primate house. (My family and I took our chances with bringing in the wheelchair, however.)

It is perhaps understandable, though, that the pathways aren’t perfect as unlike museums, zoos house, care for, and thus pay for, living animals. This creates a whole new set of issues. It was impossible not to notice how pathetic the animals’ enclosures looked. Whether the animal was small or large, their enclosure looked way too small. One of the most disturbing enclosures was the giraffes. Their enclosed space was small and the ground was completely dirt. The only interruption of the flat dust was a tall metal pole with hay at the top…not a very majestic sight. The tiger enclosure was filled with foliage. But, when we were looking at the tiger, he was just constantly pacing back in forth, clearly not happy. The experience of seeing a tiger on the prowl was exhilarating, but the limited space was not able to be overlooked. So how ethical is it really to keep animals in small cages for the amusement of little kids? Even though some animals are protected by being in the care of humans, animal sanctuaries are arguably a much more comfortable and humane place for animals.

All of the issues are things I have only considered about zoos as an adult. As a kid, the Henry Vilas Zoo was just a fun place to go to and be amazed by amazing creatures. It is maybe unfortunate that the magic of the zoo has been demystified for me. For now, though, there will still be plenty of blissfully ignorant children going to the Henry Vilas Zoo and having the time of their lives.


2 thoughts on “The Not-So-Perfect Henry Vilas Zoo

  1. I think that the people need to be more aware of accessibility issues, especially in places such as a zoo which is attended by a large varying group of people. I think that the ADA has done a good job with addressing the issue of accessibility but I think it has many flaws, In the 64 halls there are no elevators and they are hardly/not at all handicap accessible. I know that when I was taking my family around campus I couldn’t show my grandparents my room because they can’t make it up the stairs. I think that accessibility needs to be addressed in all aspects of public life especially places of entertainment and learning.


  2. I enjoyed reading about your critique of the areas that animals are housed in at the Henry Vilas Zoo. It must be difficult for a free admission zoo to secure the funds necessary to create dynamic living spaces for the animals living within the enclosures. I wonder if and how they might be making up for the lack of space. Perhaps they have implemented more cost-effective methods of keeping the animals healthy and occupied. I wonder if there is a trainer that intentionally designs aspects of the exhibit that are quite entertaining for the animal but unnoticeable to the human viewers. It would be interesting to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo and talk to the caretakers. I’m sure the people who work there care very much bout the animals and have found some innovative ways to make up for the lack of space.


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