MADISON, Wis. -- The University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine is ending its contract relationship for vet care with the Henry Vilas Zoo at the end of June.
News 3 Investigates recently learned of the contract’s ending while researching new animal welfare allegations by a former employee who left the zoo this February, three months after a third-party investigation of the zoo seemed to clear up previous alleged issues.
His concerns largely centered on the years-long relationship between the vet school and the zoo, claiming that it was inconsistent and let animal welfare issues slip through the cracks.
Both the Henry Vilas Zoo and the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine dispute many of the allegations made by the former employee.
UW told the zoo in December it would not be renewing its contract scheduled to end in June because the increasing demand on its veterinarians had grown beyond what the school could commit to. In a statement, it also noted that zoos that had grown to the size of Henry Vilas typically hire their own in-house veterinarian.
The university did not comment on if the split had anything to do with previous controversy surrounding the zoo.
MADISON, Wis. -- More than two dozen members of the Dane County Board of Supervisors are calling for County Executive Joe Parisi to fire Henry Vilas Zoo Director Ronda Schwetz.
In 2022, former employees' allegations of racism, animal welfare issues and a hostile work environment, published by the Wisconsin State Journal, put the zoo under scrutiny.
Following the report, the zoo faced inspections by three different agencies.
In May 2022, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture resulted in two citations related to animal care. That fall, both the county and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the primary accrediting body for zoos, conducted their own investigations.
“I was so excited for change,” said Romanoski. “And not just immediate change, but long term change, like action plans, action items, you know, but there was nothing. And the stuff that we did get was minimal.”
The county’s third-party investigation, performed by a retired Dane County circuit court judge, found no animal care issues beyond those previously cited by the USDA. The AZA’s investigation led to some minor animal exhibit updates, a zoo spokesperson said.
But Romanoski believes there are things they missed.
New animal safety allegations
Citing an animal’s recent death and another animal’s health issue noticed by an outsider, most of Romanoski’s concerns stemmed from side effects of the contract relationship between the Henry Vilas Zoo and the School of Veterinary Medicine.
When the zoo’s last full-time vet retired in 2019, Dane County took up a five-year contract veterinary relationship with UW to fill the gap. Right now, that consists of five UW vets who travel to the zoo to provide veterinary care. The zoo says one of those vets accounts for approximately 80% of on-grounds care with the others rotating in as needed. They also have a vet on call 24/7 in case of emergencies.
Romanoski believes this arrangement left animals with inconsistent care and allowed health issues to slip through the cracks.
He argues the relationship made the vets' visits to the zoo feel more like consultations than long-term care, likening it to when vets are called in to treat privately-owned large animals.
“They're not the primary vet, so once that case is resolved, that person is back on their own, and that was the way I felt like they treated the zoo, as just one of their rotations," he said.
The role of UW vets wasn’t clear, he said, leaving the zoo with a revolving door of caretakers.
“Whenever a new vet came in, it was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to kind of start from scratch,’” Romanoski said. “We ended up just getting very slow results.”
In one instance, he believes the inconsistencies led to the death of a skunk last summer due to untreated congestive heart failure.
“I swear, there were four different vets seeing the skunk at any time point,” he said. “The necropsy at the UW is when they found that she had congestive heart failure, and that's what killed her. So she had unmanaged heart failure this whole time we were working her up.”
In another, he said it took an outside vet who happened to be visiting to recognize an issue with a giraffe.
“That person brought it to our attention that Eddie's gait is very abnormal, the way he walks,” Romanoski said. “The vet should have picked that up on annual exams, and if they had a vet that was appropriate, they would have.”
The zoo did not respond to specific animal care allegations but said in a lengthy statement that “accusations about animal welfare concerns are especially hurtful to our team who have dedicated their lives to the well-being and conservation of the animals in our care.”
Romanoski said when he raised these concerns to zoo management, he was met with disciplinary action and suspended for insubordination and creating a hostile work environment.
“It felt like they were taking it as a threat,” he said.
In February, Romanoski resigned and outlined his concerns in an extensive exit interview obtained by News 3 Now.
In it, he states “[t]he UW veterinarians have no formal job description and the lack of oversight and accountability of the vets by the general curator and deputy director has led to constant stress within the hospital.”
He goes on to mention several specific animal care incidents and concerns surrounding the handling of disputes between himself and zoo leadership.
The zoo said his suspension came after Romanoski had multiple verbal altercations with other zoo staff and UW vets.
“The former employee you spoke with was not interested in the collaborative work environment we foster here at Henry Vilas Zoo,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “Regrettably, we did not part ways with this employee on positive terms. Such separations can often come with hurt feelings and bruised egos.”
Zoo officials defend UW’s veterinarians
The zoo stood by veterinary care at the facility saying, "[o]ur zoo veterinarians are leaders in their field who are highly educated, compassionate, caring, proactive, and conscientious professionals.”
The statement went on to add, “[t]o insinuate that our veterinarians are doing anything other than their very best would be contrary to their moral standards and a slander of their professional names."
The UW School of Veterinary Medicine also strongly backed their vets, saying they’ve provided “nothing but diligent, high-quality veterinary care to the animals at Henry Vilas Zoo, and any accusation that suggests otherwise is completely without merit.”
Following the end of the contract relationship at the end of June, the zoo said it has hired a former UW veterinarian full-time and will have uninterrupted vet coverage during the transition.
Zoo officials also said that collaboration with UW won’t end with the contract. They’re hoping to continue the relationship through specialist consultations and constructive partnerships.
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