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Arctic Passage: Up Close and Personal


Want to sit down and eat with Polar Bears? The Henry Vilas Zoo lets you do just that at the Glacier Grille. Glacier Grille is the only restaurant in North America where you can eat with the Polar Bears. Arctic Passage, the zoo’s newest exhibit that opened last summer, gives patrons an up close view of our neighbors from the north like you have never seen.

Ronda Schwetz, the zoo director at Henry Vilas zoo, describes the arctic passage as “An exhibit that we have created in hopes to get families closer with the animals.”

Patrons of all ages get the chance to be up close and personal with the three-year-old twin polar bears, Sakari and Suka, both on land and down below as they dive through the water.

Morning swims are a particular favorite for the twins if you want to see them enjoy some time in the pool. “Doing rounds in the morning, I see Sakari diving into the water coming to say ‘Hello’ to me as he swims past the glass” Schwetz says describing one of her favorite parts of her job.

One of Schwetz’s favorite attractions is the Tundra Buggy, which is a retired arctic expedition vehicle that has been donated by Northern Frontiers to the zoo.

The harbor seals have been moved across the zoo to the Arctic Passage. Home to the oldest harbor seal in captivity, Betty, her daughter Lucy, and newcomer, King Julian, these playful seals can be found swimming throughout the day.

Next door, Ash and Lexi are orphan Grizzly cubs from Wyoming. Before they made their journey to Madison, they lived in an area too harsh for their survival.  Their family was too close to human contact as they found themselves falling into traps after digging through the garbage. This prompted their need for a new home.

The zoo prides itself in adopting these orphans, along with all rescued and new born animals, to their new home. Henry Vilas Zoo is in a class of its own in terms of taking care of their animals. The zoo is an AZA accredited zoo, one of only ten free zoos to achieve this accreditation in North America.

Many of these types animals featured in the arctic passage are currently struggling to adapt to climate changes in the arctic and across the globe. Shrinking ice caps and forests push these animals to their limits to survive.

Education is highly important in changing these natural habitats which is why the zoo has scattered lessons and information across the exhibit. These lessons emphasize the idea to be environmentally conscious. The zoo balances the fun of the exhibit with their advice on how they conserve energy and how you can too. The zoo uses solar panels and a saltwater storage system to save over two million gallons of water a year. “Arctic passage is the vision to what we want to do with the rest of the zoo” Schwetz emphasized.

Thanks to generous donations and fundraises, future additions, much like Arctic Passage, are on their way as they open the Heritage Exhibit this fall. This exhibit is set to show off some of Wisconsin’s iconic wildlife. Henry Vilas Zoo has collaborated with the University of Wisconsin to bring badgers, Bucky, and two new brothers, Dekker and Kaminsky, to the zoo.

Along with the badgers, the zoo will present one of Wisconsin’s greatest success stories, the Sandhill Cranes. These elegant birds have made a triumphant return to Wisconsin since their endangerment in the 1970’s. “Numbers were dangerously low and everyone came together in the 70’s, which has brought the population to 650,000 cranes,” Schwetz explained.

The Henry Vilas Zoo offers a lot more than just the Arctic Passage and Heritage Exhibit. They also have exhibits like the Tropical Rainforest Aviary, Big Cats Exhibit, the Primate House, and a few others. The zoo is a great way to spend an afternoon for free.

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