Henry Vilas Zoo cited with a critical violation after Roadside Zoo News tipped off the feds


Henry Vilas Zoo is in Madison, Wisconsin.

The Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin, has been cited with two violations of the Animal Welfare Act after Roadside Zoo News tipped off the feds.


Henry Vilas Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), an organization that sets standards for animal care and welfare at member zoos.

In April, the Wisconsin State Journal published an article about the Henry Vilas Zoo outlining alarming issues, some of which resulted in the death of zoo animals. According to the article:

  • Five or six African penguins died in the past year due to mistakes by zookeepers.

  • Wild raccoons entered a penguin exhibit and decapitated an elderly African penguin named Alice.

  • A capybara named Shrek jumped into a drained pool while he was sedated, breaking one of his legs.

  • A hornbill was introduced into a meerkat exhibit and was later found dead and partially eaten by the meerkats.

  • A young seal named Lucille had a common intestinal issue and died within a week.

  • Two green aracaris, a species of toucan, drowned after being introduced to an exhibit with an aquarium.

The zoo’s conservation education curator, Jess Thompson, confirmed the incidents involving the penguins, seal, capybara, hornbill and aracrais, according to Wisconsin State Journal. Thompson later told Wisconsin Public Radio that there were a lot of inaccuracies that were published in the article.


Roadside Zoo News reported the incidents to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA conducted an inspection May 26 and cited Henry Vilas Zoo with a critical violation for the incident involving the capybara. Download the inspection report here.


Stock image of a capybara. Location unknown.

The USDA inspector wrote that after the capybara received an injection the animal reacted by running toward staff and jumping into an empty exhibit pool before anyone could capture it.


“An accident during the handling of a male capybara resulted with a fracture to the animal’s leg,” the inspector wrote. Wisconsin State Journal reported that the capybara died after the incident. The USDA report does not state whether the capybara survived.


Henry Vilas Zoo was also cited with a non critical violation for sanitation due to the repeated pest control issues the zoo experiences from raccoons. Four raccoons were spotted inside the capybara enclosure in a three week timespan and the male capybara sustained injuries from interactions with the raccoons that required veterinary consultation, according to the inspection report.


Henry Vilas Zoo has been a source of controversy in recent years. The zoo’s director, Ronda Schwetz, was accused of sexually assaulting an employee during an AZA conference in 2018. Schwetz entered into an agreement to have criminal charges dismissed in the case and returned to her position at the zoo last October. The victim filed a civil lawsuit alleging that he was blackballed from the zoo industry after speaking out about the assault.


Last year, the zoo was burglarized twice. The perpetrators stole money from a donation box and items from the zoo.


Last month, the Dane County Board approved a proposal to pay up to $50,000 for a retired judge to conduct an independent investigation into former employees' claims of racism, animal mistreatment and neglect at Henry Vilas Zoo. The investigation report is due October 1.