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Monday, September 25, 2023

Investigation of Henry Vilas Zoo finds no evidence of discrimination or hostile workplace allegations

The investigation, led by Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn, did find evidence of unfair employment practices and problems within the zoo’s administrative structure.

An independent investigation into the work culture of Henry Vilas Zoo found no evidence of discrimination or a hostile work environment, despite a history of allegations.

The investigation, led by retired Dane County Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn, resulted in a 51-page report that detailed explanations for her findings. Judge Bailey-Rihn concluded the claims did not meet legal thresholds. 

The report states that four of the zoo’s employees observed racially motivated harassment, bullying or discrimination. Seventeen of the employees reported experiencing these claims themselves. 

Although the former judge found no evidence to validate claims of discrimination or a hostile work environment, she found “isolated past issues” with animal treatment. She clarified that issues surrounding animal treatment were previously investigated and declined to offer recommendations as the issues were likely linked to the zoo’s administrative structure. 

Judge Bailey-Rihn stated in the report the administrative issues are likely linked to significant “growing pains” after the zoo doubled its staff over the past four years. She offered 10 recommendations to resolve administrative tensions, including improving communication between workers and rearranging the zoo’s employee organization structure.

The former judge clarified that while no evidence of discrimination was found, she did find evidence of unfair employment practices but refused to give them merit. 

“While I find some evidence of these allegations, the recognition of an allegation is unhelpful by itself unless these allegations arise to the level of discrimination,” Bailey-Rihn said. “I did not find any such discrimination at the zoo.” 

In a statement, County Board Chair Patrick Miles said the investigation was necessary given the severity of the allegations and the negative media coverage. 

“This arms-length review should give the public confidence that zoo staff and management are making improvements and the zoo is operating in a way that is safe and fair for both the animals and our county employees working there,” Miles said. 

In May, a separate county investigation found evidence of “toxicity” in the zoo’s work environment, including racism, sexism, a lack of diversity and conflicts over animal welfare decisions. 

Judge Bailey-Rihn will formally present the report before the County Board at 6 p.m. on Nov. 17. 

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