In 1904, the City of Madison, Wisconsin received a gift of 50-acres of land from William and Anna Vilas. The land had been set aside "for the uses and purposes of a public park and pleasure ground.'' Named in honor of Henry Vila, the couple's youngest son who had died as a result of diabetic complications, the family stipulated that the park grounds always be free of charge to the public.
From 1905 through 1910, the Vilas family donated approximately $42,000 towards improvements for the zoo, and public donations raised an additional $10,000 for expansion and remodeling the park. As the zoo and park were developed and expanded, both have remained free of charge.
By 1911, 28-acres of the land were partitioned into animal exhibits, which marked the creation of the zoo. In 1914, the Madison Zoological and Aquarium was founded, and in 1926, became known as the Henry Vilas Park Zoological Society, which continues to the present day. During 1964, the Zoological Society was incorporated as a non-profit organization.
The sole purpose of the Madison Zoological and Aquarium Society is to build support from the community and provide funding for improvements to be made to the zoo. Included are acquisition and conservation of animals, renovating and addition of new exhibits, support of educational programs and improving the overall value of the zoo.
On April 8th, 2006, the conservation carousel began spinning and the Henry Vilas Zoo opened the doors of the new Children's Zoo. The animal exhibits featured are Indian Crested porcupines, Red-necked wallabies, White-handed gibbons, White cockatoo, Red pandas and Meerkats. Also featured in the Children's Zoo are a Tree House and Adventure Play Area, which invite children to run, jump, crawl, swing and explore.
Upon the 100th anniversary of the Henry Vilas Zoo, the Society announced its "Zoo Century'' campaign to support a $27 million Master Plan to redevelop the zoo over the next 10 years. The City of Madison and Dane County have already managed to secure $13 million to be designated to the first phase of redevelopment. The new renovations are designed to ensure the zoo provides the best animal care and exhibits, as it moves toward the future.
The Henry Vilas Zoo welcomes more than 500,000 visitors each year and still charges no fees for admission or parking. The zoo grounds are opened daily from 9:30 am until 5 pm, and the buildings are opened daily from 10 am until 4 pm. The facility is closed on Thanksgiving and the day after, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day and Martin Luther King Day. The facilities are fully handicapped accessible and wheelchair and stroller rentals are provided.