The Henry Vilas Zoo has received two warnings from the federal government for animal neglect.
The notices were issued from the US Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a federal agency that, among other things, regulates genetically engineered organisms, administers the Animal Welfare Act, and manages wildlife damage.
The violations, issued on May 26, focus on the zoo’s treatment of capybaras, including one incident that resulted in the death of an animal.
There are two types of incident violations that can be issued: critical and non-critical. A critical incident is one that has a serious or severe adverse effect on the health and well-being of the animal. A non-critical incident is one that has only a minor adverse effect on the health and well-being of an animal.
The first violation, listed as a critical incident, occurred when zoo staff issued a sedative to a male capybara, when it ran past staff and jumped into an empty pool. Jess Thompson is the Conservation Education Curator with the zoo. She says that, although the animal received immediate medical attention, the capybara did not survive.
The second violation, listed as a non-critical incident, concerns the sanitation of the capybara enclosure at the zoo. More specifically, it takes issue with the way the zoo handled pest control in the enclosure.
The violation notes that there were four instances of raccoons getting into the enclosure within a three-week period. During that period, one male capybara received some injuries from a raccoon. At the time, the report says that all pest control at the zoo was done in-house.
The report does note that, after these instances occurred, the zoo did begin to contract with an outside pest control company, and had no more issues with raccoons at the zoo.
Thompson says that the zoo has taken efforts to make that zoo safer since the incidents.
“We always want to learn and do better, so we’ve changed a couple of our holding areas to make sure that any future veterinary procedures that we do are much safer. And he noted that that concern was resolved,” Thompson says.
Thompson says that, because they had made their changes by the time of the inspection in April, the zoo faced no fines or penalties from the violations.
The agency issues surprise inspections for all licensed zoos every year, to make sure that they are treating their animals properly under the Animal Welfare Act. The US Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service could not be reached for comment on the inspection by airtime.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA, is a nonprofit organization tracking the standards of zoos in America. The Henry Vilas Zoo is accredited by the AZA, a standard met by less than 10% of all zoos in the country. Rob Vernon, with the AZA, says that these types of violations are not uncommon.
The USDA inspectors are pretty tough, most of the time they are going to find a violation, even at the best facilities in the country. What we really want to see is that, when they do identify a violation, that it’s taken care of right away. In terms of this report, we would take a look at it, and in both cases there are follow-up notes in the report that says the facility has taken action to correct the violation,” Vernon says.
Vernon says that, if a zoo is AZA accredited, people can be assured that the zoo is held to a strict standard of animal care.
The violations came just before the Dane County Board of Supervisors voted to conduct an independent investigation into the management at the zoo. That comes after the Wisconsin State Journal reported that the zoo lost its only two Black zookeepers due to allegations of racism and neglecting animal welfare.
Jess Thompson says that they stand by their AZA accreditation, and are proud that they are held to high standards by the USDA.
“…and we welcome that for anyone who the county chooses to come out as well. We really want to be transparent, and we want people to know that we are continuing to learn and grow in our field with the best knowledge that is out there in terms of animal care and welfare. We are really proud of the care that we do give to our animals,” Thompson says.
The Henry Vilas Zoo is scheduled to renew their accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 2024.
The zoo isn’t the only Madison institution to face violations over animal welfare. UW-Madison was also warned of multiple violations under the Animal Welfare Act, for multiple instances from 2015 to 2019.
Photo courtesy: Nate Wegehaupt / WORT News Team