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Timeline of the Henry Vilas Zoo

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


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.

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.

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.

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.

Flamingos & Train

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A New Primate House
New Primate House

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

Discovery Center and Herpetarium Opens
Discovery Center Herpetarium

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

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.

Penguin Exhibit
Penguin Exhibit 1986

The new penguin exhibit opens.

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.

Seal Exhibit
Seal Island

The zoo opens its seal exhibit.

Otter Exhibit

The zoo opens its otter exhibit.

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.

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.

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.

New Bears

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

Arabian Camel Born

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

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.

First Primate House
First primate house

The zoo’s first primate house is built.

First Lion House
First Lion House in 1917

The zoo’s first lion house is built.

First Bear Exhibit
Center of Henry Vilas Zoo in 1913

The first bear exhibit is built.

Official Opening
Official Opening

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

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.