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MONKEY HOUSE 7 10 97 (copy)

Stump-tailed macaque and rhesus monkeys always attracted a crowd at the Henry Vilas Zoo. In 1919, the zoo became the first in the United States to build a "monkey island." The round monkey house, shown here in 1997, was built in 1963 and torn down in 1998. 

State Journal archives

Ten years ago, the Alliance for Animals commemorated the 10-year anniversary of the disposal of 144 rhesus monkeys born at the Vilas zoo that were shipped to Louisiana to be used in just the sort of harmful experiments that UW-Madison had promised the public, multiple times, that they would not be used in.

The small gathering was held on a cold day in early March on the empty spot where the monkey house had once stood. The Vilas monkeys had been the most popular exhibit at the zoo.

The event was covered by the Badger Herald. The reporter asked Joseph Kemnitz, the Primate Center director at the time and 10 years earlier when the scandal had unfolded in the press, for a comment. Kemnitz flatly denied that the university had agreed not to use the monkeys from the zoo. [“County plans to honor monkeys,” Carol Harshman, Badger Herald, March 7, 2008.] Yet Kemnitz had been a central figure in the scandal; the university issued a statement under the signature of Kemnitz’s boss, the Graduate School dean at the time, Virginia Hinshaw:

"An inventory conducted August 11-12, 1997, by officials from the Wisconsin Regional Primate Center indicates that Primate Center monkeys housed in the UW facility at Henry Vilas Park Zoo were used in invasive research projects. This represents a serious breach of the 1989 local agreement between directors of the center and the zoo." [Inventory of Monkeys Used by the Primate Center From the Center’s Henry Vilas Zoo Colony. Statement by Graduate School Dean Virginia S. Hinshaw, 8/13/97]

In March 1998, in spite of appeals from the governor’s wife, offers of financial help for the rhesus monkeys from sanctuaries and area school children, in spite of thousands of signatures on a petition — long before such things became so much easier on social media — in spite of a very large majority of Dane County supervisors voting to find a way to save the monkeys, the university loaded 144 monkeys into a truck and shipped them to Louisiana to be used in labs there.

On Saturday, March 3, at the Goodman Community Center, 149 Waubesa St. in Madison, from 5 to 8 p.m., The Alliance for Animals will present a multimedia chronicle of events leading up to the final act of indecency and abandonment of the monkeys that lived for years in large family groups at the Vilas Zoo.

The UW’s history of lies, law-breaking, and secrecy surrounding its use of animals will be discussed by Madison activist and author Rick Bogle, whose book “We All Operate in the Same Way” exposes the dark and hidden reality at our nation’s animal labs. The book talk is at 6 p.m.

Light refreshments will be provided. The public is encouraged to attend this free event. For more information, please visit

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Mary Telfer is the executive director of Alliance for Animals.

Correction: The date the monkeys were removed from the zoo has been corrected.

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