Settlement reached in lawsuit filed against Madison zoo director, national zoo group

A $2.8 million settlement has been reached in a lawsuit filed by a former University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher who accused the director of Madison's public zoo of sexual assault during an out-of-state work conference in 2018.

The researcher, who worked at the zoo, filed the lawsuit in 2021 against Ronda Schwetz, director of the Henry Vilas Zoo, and the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. He contended he was retaliated against after he reported the assault.

The majority of the monetary settlement — $2.3 million — will be paid by the zoo association with the remaining $500,000 coming from Dane County, which operates the Vilas Zoo, said Marty McLean, one of the researcher's attorneys. The researcher requested not to be named for privacy reasons, and the Journal Sentinel does not identify sexual assault victims without their permission.

In addition, the settlement bars Schwetz from attending the zoo association's annual conference for up to five years and requires she leaves her committee posts, McLean said.

According to the lawsuit, Schwetz suggested the researcher attend the association's annual conference to network and asked that they share a room with twin beds to save money. The first night of the conference, Schwetz came into the room "visibly intoxicated" and upset because the zoo had lost a certain accreditation, and repeatedly groped the researcher as he pushed her away, the suit said.

The second night, Schwetz was seen intoxicated at the hotel bar straddling a man before others, including the researcher, pulled her away. She then "became inappropriate and sexually aggressive" with the researcher inside the hotel room, according to the lawsuit.

The researcher reported the assault allegation to the zoo association in July 2019, after Schwetz no longer was his supervisor. He began a new job at a different zoo, which had seemed eager to hire him, only to be quickly fired after colleagues there said they had heard things about his character from the zoo association. The researcher alleged his firing was retaliation for reporting the assault.

In an interview Wednesday, McLean said the situation "destroyed" his client's job prospects.

"This was not just a job for him," said Jessica Thompson, another member of the researcher's legal team. "This was his dream since he was a kid."

Schwetz also faced a misdemeanor criminal charge — assault with sexual motivation — in Seattle related to this incident. She agreed to a probationary period that lasts until this October, Wisconsin Public Radio reported. If she successfully completes all requirements, the charge will be dismissed. Schwetz, who currently remains the zoo's director, and a zoo spokeswoman did not return a call and email Wednesday.

A spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums released a statement saying the group was "grateful" that the lawsuit had been resolved.

"We have acknowledged and apologized for our mistakes," Rob Vernon said. "Our focus is forward, continuing in service to our members and advancing the gold standard for modern zoological facilities."

After news of the settlement broke this week, a majority of the Dane County Board of Supervisors called on County Executive Joe Parisi to fire Schwetz, according to Madison-area media reports.

In response, Dane County Human Resources Director Amy Utzig told the board that the county already had investigated allegations involving Schwetz. The concerns first came up during the county's negotiations with the nonprofit Henry Vilas Zoo Society.

"The investigation included interviews with (the researcher) and Director Schwetz," according to the statement Utzig shared with the Journal Sentinel.

"Ultimately, the investigation concluded that there had been no wrongdoing on the part of Director Schwetz," the statement continued. "A follow-up investigation was also conducted in 2021 when new allegations came to light. The investigation could not find evidence to substantiate misconduct."

McLean, the researcher's attorney, said his client had been interviewed about the conflict between the zoo and the society, not the sexual assault allegation.

"They have never spoken to him about this, not one time," McLean said.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Henry Vilas Zoo director, national zoo group settle lawsuit