Retired Dane Co. judge chosen to investigate Henry Vilas Zoo allegations

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) – A recently retired Dane County judge will lead the independent investigation into a series of allegations against the Henry Vilas Zoo.

Judge Valarie Bailey-Rihn was hired after the Dane County Personnel and Finance Committee approved the bid waiver in its meeting Thursday night. County Board Chair Patrick Miles explained now that the bid is secured, the investigation can move forward.

“I’m confident in Judge Bailey-Rihn as the special investigator,” Miles said. “She is uniquely qualified to provide an impartial, frank review of the allegations at the Zoo.”

The County Board voted overwhelmingly in June to launch an investigation into allegations that range from mistreatment or neglect of animals at the zoo to racism within the zoo’s management and people leaving because of a hostile work environment. The resolution directs Miles to enlist a retired circuit court judge to lead the inquiry and sets aside $50,000 for the investigation, which is expected to last no more than four months.

The proposal came following a Wisconsin State Journal article in April that detailed the departure of the only two Black zookeepers, who left for opportunities in other cities. The proposal by the Board specifically cited the article and directed the investigation to “include all issues raised in the Wisconsin State Journal’s report.” The allegations listed in the text of the proposal include (taken from resolution):

  • allegations of racism by zoo management
  • allegations of retaliation for union activity
  • allegations of retaliation for whistleblowing
  • allegations that employees have been unequally disciplined
  • allegations that animals at the zoo have been neglected or mistreated
  • allegations that zoo employees have left their jobs due to a hostile work environment

The County Board detailed the Judge Bailey-Rihn graduated at the top of her law school class and worked with Milwaukee-headquartered law firm Quarles and Brady following her graduation, eventually becoming partner on Oct. 1, 2000, until she became a judge in 2016.

A written report from the retired judge can be expected to be finished as early as Oct. 1, the Board added.

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