Helping Polar Bears to Survive: Arctic Passage at Henry Vilas Zoo

June 30, 2015 • Drew Jordan, RLA

Climate change is melting polar ice, making it harder for bears to find food, forcing them to swim further from ice flow to ice flow to hunt. With less ice and more open water, seals have more places to come up for air, and it’s becoming more difficult for the bears to continue to survive using their hunting techniques. The bears are persevering, but every day their numbers dwindle. Zoos around the world are working to help save polar bears by educating and inspiring the public, and by participating in breeding programs. Leading the charge to save the polar bears is the Canadian Province of Manitoba, which drew up a set of guidelines known as the Manitoba Standards, which a zoo or breeding program must meet in order to participate in the effort to save the polar bears.

The Arctic Passage at the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin, highlights the perseverance and survival of the endangered polar bear. The 1.7-acre exhibit meets Manitoba Standards so that the zoo could continue to help polar bears survive into the changing future.

Glacier Grill Restaurant

Arctic Passage focuses on polar bears, grizzly bears, and harbor seals. In addition, a 4,900 square-foot restaurant, the Glacier Grill, is an essential part in helping sustain the operating costs of the exhibit. The restaurant can seat 60 people, including a rentable event space, where all the diners can come face-to-face with a bear separated by three sets of 7’ tall and 11’ long uninterrupted windows. Before exiting the restaurant, diners can step into a darkened space and peer through a window of “ice” to see if a bear is napping in a snow den.

Exhibit Design

The design has three outdoor yards: a polar bear yard, a grizzly yard, and a 1,500-square-foot off-exhibit yard. Both species of bears can be rotated between yards, with a large shaded viewing area in between that features a training wall where zoo staff can work with the bears while educating the public about them. The central viewing area has a 290-square-foot glass overlook of the yards and pools. There are also two more shaded viewing structures with large expanses of glass along the trail. The bears have a 3,000-square-foot night house which includes a maternity den specifically designed to provide a comfortable environment for a mother and her cubs.


Enrichment Features

Polar bear yard • 12,650 sq. foot

  • 50,000-gallon pool for the bears with a 15′ long underwater acrylic viewing window to watch the bears dive in, play, and swim
  • A rock cave where a bear can be shaded and feel secure, yet still be visible to zoo visitors
  • A shallow pool
  • Timber logs
  • A variety of different substrates for the bears to dig in and explore



Grizzly bear yard • 10,100 sq. foot

  • A flowing stream into which zoo staff can supply live fish for the grizzly bears to catch.
  • Lots of shade, lots of space and lots to do



The seal habitat:

  • A 55,000 gallon pool that encircles an island for keepers to stand on while working with the seals
  • A shaded underwater viewing area with a 14’ long acrylic window


Conservation efforts

One of just 10 free admission AZA zoos in America, Henry Vilas Zoo knows it must provide a great visitor experience at a good value. One way the project adds value is with sustainable design.

  • 2 rain water collections tanks store 8,400 gallons of water runoff from the roof for irrigation
  • A bank of solar panels is housed on the roof of the seal building to provide electricity for the pumps
  • A network of underground pipes helps store and conserve water for the pools


Tundra Buggy

The zoo partnered with Frontiers North to bring in a decommissioned Ice Maiden tundra buggy to further enrich the visitor experience. Used in arctic expeditions for 19 years, the buggy is now filled with interactive features, fun graphics, and educational displays. In addition, throughout the site, more interactive elements like bear tracks, a cave for kids, and a bear trap are waiting to be discovered by visitors as they explore the tundra trek path.




Henry Vilas Zoo:


News articles