Last Thursday, the Dane County Board of Supervisors voted to establish an independent investigation into the management at the Henry Vilas Zoo. The free zoo has come under fire for allegations of racism, unfair treatment, and retaliation towards employees, along with mistreatment and neglect of animals.
Prior to the Wisconsin State Journal’s editorial calling for an investigation, the paper had reported that its only two Black zookeepers left the zoo in the wake of the deaths of five penguins housed at the zoo.
The independent investigator is to be named by Board Chair Patrick Miles and will be a former Circuit Court judge.
Tim Kiefer was among 26 supervisors to vote in favor of the investigation. At the Board meeting last Thursday, Kiefer cited his nieces’ and nephews’ interest in the zoo as reason to pursue this investigation.
“I hope they’re going to want to go back to the zoo. I expect they will want to go back to the zoo. And that’s concerning to me because I don’t want, as their uncle, to take them to a zoo where potentially the animals at the zoo are being mistreated,” says Kiefer.
“I don’t want to take them to a zoo where the people who work at the zoo are potentially being mistreated.”
Kiefer reiterated to me the importance of having someone outside of Dane County leading the investigation.
“I again have no pre-conceived ideas of what this investigation is or is not going to turn up,” Kiefer says. “I simply want someone who is impartial, who is unbiased, who will come into this without any connection to county government, to look at this situation, listen to what everyone has to say, do the research, issue a report, and then we’ll go from there.”
A separate investigation by two Dane County officials, Kabura Mukasa and Carrie Braxton, is in progress. Shannon Maier, the employee advocate manager for Dane County, cited this in her opposition to the resolution.
“What would you expect differently from a third-party investigator?,” poses Maier. “They would be tasked with doing what Kabura and Carrie have already done: Interview staff and then make recommendations. If the outcome is the same, would we not have wasted $50,000 of taxpayer dollars? I also believe that most zoo employees don’t necessarily want to have the process start over and go through additional interviews. They would like to move forward, to work together, to create a favorable work environment.”
Maier also felt that the relative timing of the two investigations could undermine the findings of the county’s work.
“There was never an opportunity for their plan to be implemented. The complaint came in, the investigation was started, the interviews were done, and then it kind of went public. And then the independent investigation was requested, but without giving the recommendations that were in place that were recommended by the Office of Equity and Inclusion and Employee Relations even an opportunity. They were just developing the plan,” Maier says.
With the resolution having passed, it goes to County Executive Joe Parisi for signature. Parisi, however, expressed concerns about the transparency of the investigation due to the use of a retired judge, comparing it to the work of retired state Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman’s investigation into the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin.
The deadline for the investigator to release their findings is October 1.
Image courtesy: Robert Katzki / UNSPLASH