Independent Investigation of Henry Vilas Zoo Completed

October 24, 2022
County Board Chair Patrick Miles, (608) 886-9167
County Board

In June 2022 the County Board passed a resolution authorizing an independent investigation into the Henry Vilas Zoo (“Zoo”) following allegations of racism, retaliation for union activity, retaliation for whistleblowing, unequal discipline, animal neglect or mistreatment, and a hostile work environment. 


Following the approval of the resolution for an independent investigation, retired Dane County Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn was selected to do the review. 


In addition to investigating the various allegations, the report completed by Judge Bailey-Rihn includes recommendations on other areas of concern identified during the course of the independent investigation, some of which were related to significant “growing pains” experienced by the Zoo in recent years due to a doubling of staff between 2018 and 2022, turnover in management, and the complexities and stress of experiencing these operational changes during the Covid-19 pandemic.


The report from Judge Bailey-Rihn provides findings consistent with the initial internal investigation concluded in May 2022 by Dane County Employee Relations and the Tamara D. Grigsby Office for Equity and Inclusion, in that, as with any growing organization, there is room for improvement through more clearly defined processes, management training, and more open communication between staff and management. The independent report builds on the May report with constructive recommendations to improve the Zoo’s work environment and animal welfare.

Judge Bailey-Rihn’s recent findings from the independent investigation include the following:

  • No evidence of discrimination based on the legal standard
  • No evidence of hostile work environment based on the legal standard
  • No violations of the Dane County Employee Handbook
  • Some evidence of isolated past issues with animal treatment that have been investigated and/or are being resolved

The report includes ten recommendations to improve general work environment, culture, and animal welfare.

  1. Restructure the Zoo’s Organizational Chart
  2. Gather Input by Zookeepers and Others on Key Decisions
  3. Eliminate Claims of Favoritism With “Just Cause” (a standard used for equitable discipline processes)
  4. Dealing With Limited Resources
  5. UW Veterinary Care and Reporting Animal Welfare
  6. Standardize Processes
  7. Security Concerns
  8. Improve Communication About Maintenance
  9. Zoo-Wide Training and Support for Employees 
  10. Opportunities for Advancement and Growth

The report also commends the extensive work the Zoo has been doing to improve and the commitment and passion of the employees of the Zoo.

“It was important to have this independent investigation that was conducted by Judge Bailey-Rihn, given the serious allegations and negative reporting in the media,” said County Board Chair Patrick Miles. “This arms-length review should give the public confidence that Zoo staff and management are making improvements and the zoo is operating in a way that is safe and fair for both the animals and our county employees working there.”

Judge Bailey-Rihn will present on the report at a Committee of the Whole before the County Board at 6:00 p.m. on November 17, 2022.

The report and appendices can be found on the County Board of Supervisors website: