I started making regular visits to the Henry Vilas Zoo in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin at just a few months old. During my preschool and elementary school years, my parents, sister, and I popped in and out of the zoo as often as once a day during the summer months and once a week during the rest of the year.
We were able to check up on our animal friends so frequently because 1) we lived within walking distance of the zoo, and 2) admission to the zoo was - and still is - free. It's rare that a zoo doesn't charge an (expensive) admission fee. But William and Anna Vilas, the couple who donated the land on which the zoo was built, stipulated that in exchange for their generous donation, the zoo could never charge admission. Today the zoo operates on donations as well as food, drink, and merchandise sales. I make a point to drop a few dollars in one of the donation canisters every time I leave the zoo, just to show my appreciation for this gift to the Madison community.
The zoo seems to bring in enough money to make repairs and basic upgrades as needed, but every few years the Board launches a new campaign to massively overhaul one specific area or build a new exhibit. Throughout the last 30 or so years I have seen donations fund a new primate house, tropical rainforest aviary, big cat exhibit, discovery center, herpetarium, North American prairie, indoor restaurant, visitors center, state-of-the-art animal health center, and children's zoo, complete with a massive playground, merry-go-round, train, and goat-feeding area.
This summer we toured the zoo's brand new arctic passage, where the grizzly and polar bears and beloved harbor seals now reside. Because the zoo is committed to conservation and sustainability, this build also included massive solar panels, rainwater harvesting, and an underground storage unit that saves more than 2 million gallons of water used for animals' pools every year. And because the zoo is committed to education, the area contains a number of interactive activities to help guests learn about how hunting, climate change, etc. are impacting the natural habitats of these stunning animals.
I thought about leaving Hallie in that "I got trapped" cage…
When I watch the news on television and visit social media and news websites online, most of what I see and hear - most of what we all see and hear, regardless of our program and website choices - breaks my heart. Violence, disease, famine, poverty, environmental crises…on the worst days I want to hole up inside my house and never come out. I consider myself a "glass half full" kind of gal, but even I can't ignore the fact that the daily updates get worse, not better.
What does that have to do with the zoo, you might ask?
For me, this particular zoo is, simply put, a happy place. A bright spot. More complexly, for me it represents what a community can build and sustain and even grow when members unite in generosity and with a common goal. When I need it most, it reminds me that something beautiful and compassionate, as well as educational and sustainable, can succeed, even when the odds are stacked against it.