Henry Vilas Zoo - Madison

share this article

Polar Bears at Vilas Zoo
Polar Bears at Vilas Zoo

Henry Vilas was the third of five children. On a sweltering July day in 1899 he died of complications with diabetes at the age of 27.  His father, William  F, became a prominent politician and served as Secretary of the Interior under President Cleveland. Henry Vilas Park, which later hosted a zoo, was a gift to the community of Madison as a place for the purpose of pleasure. William and his wife Anna stipulated that this park should always be free of admissions. The zoo formally opened in 1911. Today, it is one of 10 remaining free zoos in the United States.

The current zoo includes animal exhibits which include giraffe, lemur, orangutang, red panda, badger, meekat, penguin, otter, seal, turtles, snakes, and many more. There is a jungle like indoor aviary, an expansive herpatarium, petting zoo, primate house, and rides including a train and a historic carousel housed indoors. In may of 2015 the Arctic Passage exhibit opened. A thematic exploration of bears and other wildlife of arctic climates, Arctic Passage continues the tradition of building the community park with donations so that it may always remain free for all people to enjoy.

Baby Orangutan Keju born at Vilas Zoo
Baby Orangutan Keju born at Vilas Zoo 

Henry Vilas Zoo is free and open to the public daily throughout the year. It is extremely popular during the summer and fall, but winter and spring are also good times to visit. Being free and accessible, it becomes an easy place to drop in for a short hour. It is all the more novel on a cold and gray winter day.

With three major indoor exhibits, weather is not much of an issue. The lemur exhibit is always a highlight for me. And, it is therapeutic to walk through the 80 degree and humid aviary - to immerse myself in a tropical environment with exotic birds on a bleak winter afternoon.

In the last decade, Vilas Zoo has been on a building and renovating splurge. The new children's zoo offers a unique play structure, an indoor carousel, and a large petting zoo. Adults should definitely not feel excluded from the children's zoo. There are delightful exhibits which include the meerkat and red panda along a well landscaped meanering pathway through the children's zoo.

An American exhibit recently opened in conjunction with the children's zoo and includes a badger exhibit which is unique and a must visit for anyone from or visiting the badger state. A new badger exhibit is in the planning stages and planned to open in 2016.

The recently christened Arctic Passage exhibit delivers a world class zoo experience and has brought the bears back to Vilas Zoo. This thematic experience has elevated the experience at Vilas Zoo and has become one of its most popular exhibits.

Many small city zoos do not offer the range of animal exhibits that is offered at Henry Vilas Zoo. Like most public places in Madison - this one exceeds expectations. It is both educational and a novel relaxing place to take an afternoon walk.

Grizzly Bears at Vilas Zoo
Grizzly Bears at Vilas Zoo

Directions, Map, and Information

FEE: Free
HOURS: Grounds: 9:30am-5pm daily; Buildings: 10am-4pm daily

Click to activate map

Click Map Image to load the full interactive map.

Address for your GPS: 702 S Randall Ave Madison, WI 53715
| coordinates: 43.062027, -89.409037 |

From Milwaukee1.5 Hours
From Madisonn/a
From Green Bay2.5 Hours
From Wausau2.5 Hours
From Minneapolis4.5 Hours
From Chicago2.5 Hours