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Timeline of the Henry Vilas Zoo

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


January 1

Land Donated

William F. and Anna M. 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.

January 1

Official Opening

Official Opening

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

January 1

First Bear Exhibit

Center of Henry Vilas Zoo in 1913

The first bear exhibit is built.

January 1

First Lion House

First Lion House in 1917

The zoo’s first lion house is built.

January 1

First Primate House

First primate house

The zoo’s first primate house is built.

January 1

Madison is new Owners

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

January 1

Arabian Camel Born

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

January 1

New Bears

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

January 1

New Young Pair of Giraffes

News article about giraffe story

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

January 1

Children’s Zoo Opens

Girl feeding goat in children's zoo

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.

January 1

Remodel of Big Cats Home

Remodeled big cat house

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

January 1

Otter Exhibit

The zoo opens its otter exhibit.

January 1

Seal Exhibit

Seal Island

The zoo opens its seal exhibit.

January 1

County is New Owners

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

January 1

Penguin Exhibit

Penguin Exhibit 1986

The new penguin exhibit opens.

January 1

New Polar Bear Cubs

Polar Bear cubs Nanuq and Norton

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

January 1

Discovery Center and Herpetarium Opens

Discovery Center Herpetarium

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

January 1

A New Primate House

New Primate House

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

January 1

New Big Cat Complex

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.

January 1

New Visitors Center

Anna Vilas Hall

A new visitors center (now called Anna Vilas Hall) opens after a $1.25 million renovation of the former aviary. The center houses a permanent zoo history exhibit and the zoos’ seasonal exhibits.

January 1

Tropical Rainforest Aviary

Tropical Rainforest Aviary

The zoo opens its new $4.2 million Tropical Rainforest Aviary and completes a concept plan for the $27 million Zoo Century capital campaign.

January 1

North American Prairie Exhibit

North American Prairie Exhibit

The North American Prairie exhibit opens, bringing bison, prairie dogs, and a badger to the zoo. The Conservation Carousel begins offering rides.

January 1

New Children’s Zoo Exhibits

red panda

The Children’s Zoo animal exhibits are completed and feature a red panda, wallaby, porcupine, meerkats, and white-handed gibbons.

January 1

Flamingos & Train


A year-round flamingo exhibit opens. The Children’s Zoo Train begins to offer rides.

January 1

Children’s Zoo “Red Barn”

Children's Zoo "Red Barn"

The Children’s Zoo “Red Barn” is completed. This sustainably-designed building houses top quality habitats with minimal environmental impact. It also provides wonderful educational opportunities.

January 1

Animal Health Center Opens

The Animal Health Center

The Animal Health Center, the zoo’s state-of-the-art veterinary medical facility, opens in the spring.

January 1

Arctic Passage Opens

Arctic Passage Exhibit

Construction is completed on Arctic Passage, the largest renovation in the zoo’s history. The new exhibit complex includes many exciting features, including special conservation and sustainability components, the zoo’s first indoor restaurant (The Glacier Grille), and large, state-of-the-art exhibits for the zoo’s polar bears, grizzly bears, and harbor seals.

January 1

Wisconsin Heritage Exhibit Opens

Wisconsin Heritage Exhibit

The Wisconsin Heritage Exhibit, highlighting Wisconsin’s mining history and the story of Bucky Badger, opens in October. The new exhibit features American badgers and sandhill cranes.