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History

Henry Vilas Zoo

Take a look through the history of Madison’s favorite zoo.

Our History

Timeline

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1904

1904

Henry Vilas Zoo Henry Vilas

William F. and Anna M. Vilas donate a 63-acre tract of land for Vilas Park, with the stipulation that no admission be charged. It was named in memory of the couple’s son, Henry, who died at a young age five years earlier due to complications from diabetes.

1911

Henry Vilas Zoo 1911 List of Animals

The Henry Vilas Zoo officially opens as the first animal exhibits are built.

1913

1913

Henry Vilas Zoo 1913

The first bear exhibit is built.

1914

1914

The Madison Zoological and Aquarium Society, now called Henry Vilas Zoological Society, is formed to support and enhance the zoo.

1917

1917

Henry Vilas Zoo 1917 Lion House

The zoo’s first lion house is built.

1929

1929

Henry Vilas Zoo Red Panda Primate House 1929

The zoo’s first primate house is built.

1937

1937

The City of Madison assumes ownership of the zoo, Vilas Park, and other parks from the Madison Park & Pleasure Drive Association.

1950

1950

A female named Al Malaikah becomes the first Arabian camel (dromedary) born at the zoo.

1952

1952

Two new grizzly bears and a polar bear bring the zoo’s bear menagerie to 22.

1968

1968

Henry Vilas Zoo 1968 Giraffe

The zoo spends a record $10,000 to bring in a young pair of giraffes.

1972

1972

Henry Vilas Zoo Goat 1972

The Children’s Zoo opens, allowing kids to get up close and personal with a sea lion, baby elephant, fawns, bear cubs, toucans and other animals.

1973

1973

Henry Vilas Zoo 1973 Big Cats

The zoo unveils a remodeled home for its big cats, replacing the original 1917 lion house.

1977

1977

The zoo opens its otter exhibit.

1979

1979

Henry Vilas Zoo Seal Island

The zoo opens its seal exhibit.

1983

1983

Ownership of the zoo is transferred from the City of Madison to Dane County, a process that takes a decade to complete.

1986

1986

Henry Vilas Zoo Penguin Exhibit

The new penguin exhibit opens.

1988

1988

Henry Vilas Zoo Polar Bears

Two orphaned polar bear cubs, Nanuq and Norton, are brought to the zoo from Alaska.

1993

1993

Henry Vilas Zoo Red Panda Discovery Center and Herpetarium 1993

The Discovery Center and Herpetarium, home to slithery reptiles and amphibians, opens.

1995

1995

Henry Vilas Zoo Primate House

A new primate house opens for the zoo’s orangutans, colobus monkeys, and gibbons.

1997

1997

The new big cat complex for Amur tigers and African lions is completed, along with a renovation of the visitor services buildings near the zoo’s main entrance.

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