as told to j.p. anderson | June 27, 2014 | Lifestyle
As the Lincoln Park Zoo readies for its annual Zoo Ball, president and CEO Kevin Bell shares his lifelong passion for animal conservation.
Nayembi, a baby western lowland gorilla, was born at the zoo in 2012.
I am a third-generation zoo person: My father was a curator of birds at the Bronx Zoo in New York, and my dad’s uncle before him was a keeper there. I moved into the zoo when I was 5 years old—we actually had a house on the zoo grounds—and was there until I went away to college, so I had 265 acres around me as a playground. My jobs before and after school were taking care of new species, primarily birds but later gorillas and hoof stock and nocturnal animals. I couldn’t wait to finish dinner so I could go back out on the grounds. I was probably one of those few people who even before college knew exactly what their career was going to be. I was in my second year of graduate school when Dr. Lester Fisher, Lincoln Park Zoo’s longtime zoo director, called the director of the Bronx Zoo and said they were looking for a bird curator. I literally finished up my graduate work and was here a month later, in March 1976, so nearly 39 years ago.
The Bronx Zoo had a long history of famous biologists who were visionary curators and very conservation-minded—William Beebe, Lee Crandall, William Conway—but when I came here, Lincoln Park Zoo didn’t have that reputation. The one thing they did have was a zoo director who was known nationally because he did Zoo Parade with Marlin Perkins in the ’50s and all those TV shows that brought actual zoos into people’s living rooms for the first time, and that was Les Fisher. He is a remarkable, wonderful man, very gentle, who really cares about people and he cares about animals. When I came here, they were working on completing the first Great Ape House—the Lester E. Fisher Great Ape House—the hospital, and the commissary, and then they were starting on a building for penguins and seabirds, which we just tore down this past year. So right away I was involved with designing new exhibits and [helping] with new things happening at the zoo, and the Lincoln Park Zoological Society and the Women’s Board were a large part of the fundraising for that.
John Ettelson, chairman of the board of trustees; Peggy White, president of the Women’s Board; the cochairs of Zoo Ball 2013; and Kevin Bell.
It’s important to remember this is one of the oldest zoos in the United States. The oldest facility we have that hasn’t been renovated was last done in 1981, and that will be torn down later this year, yet we started in 1868. The Women’s Board has been doing the Zoo Ball gala for 37 years, and they raise money for capital support, for endowment, for programmatic support, and they do an awful lot of work to make that happen. There’ll be a thousand people at the gala, and it will probably raise about a million dollars. It’s really great to have that constant support.
The theme of this year’s Zoo Ball is “Monkey Business,” because we’re building a new exhibit of Japanese macaques just inside the West Gate, where the penguin/seabird house was. They’re the most temperate-climate species, and they live in Japan—they’re the ones that go into the hot springs in the cold weather in winter, and National Geographic photographs t hem coming out with ice all around their heads. For Chicago it will be a great year-round exhibit, since most of our primates are inside in the wintertime. We’re actually building hot tubs right into the exhibit, in front of the glass, that will look like hot springs, so hopefully the macaques will come down and the people will be able to see them and enjoy that for themselves. That will most likely be a wintertime opening, which is fine for those animals.
In addition to its exotic animal exhibits, Lincoln Park Zoo features the Nature Boardwalk, a haven for indigenous plant and animal species.
Summer is an exciting time at the zoo. We have day camps here throughout the week with a lot of educational activities. And then on the weekends you have people from all across Chicago; that’s when you really see the diversity of our audience. It’s not unusual when you’re walking across the zoo grounds to hear six different languages being spoken. It’s a real treasure for the city—Dr. Fisher always said that Lincoln Park Zoo was the urban oasis in Chicago, a place where every community could come and get along and have a good time—and I know a lot of our donors feel that way, too. We’re the only privately managed free zoo in the country. For Chicagoans to support that, and be a part of something that gives everybody an equal opportunity to come and have a great time and a great experience, we’re fortunate.
The zoo has changed and improved greatly since I arrived. When we went private in 1995, at that time we might have had two people working on conservation science; we now have over 40. We have people working in other places, like the Serengeti, so we’ve taken a much bigger approach with conservation. Our mission is to help save species, not just display them at the zoo. We want people to learn about them, to understand the need to conserve them. Otherwise, zoos aren’t going to be here, and the species aren’t going to be in the wild. So we’re now a part of the movement to develop plans to save species by working with people in the field and educating the public that comes in our gates about the need to conserve. We can’t save everything, but we have to figure out what are those key species for which we can really make a difference.
Our newest center at the zoo is the Urban Wildlife Institute. We know that there are a lot of exotic animals that share our space in Chicago, and the goal is to figure out how we can make spaces for both animals and people. So with our Nature Boardwalk, we tried to build a place that was great for people and also great for the animals— it uses the migratory birds and turtles and everything else—and use that as a model so that, not only in Chicago but in other cities, you can build spaces that work for both. It’s a living classroom for the kids, and just a nice place for people to walk or jog around. It’s also the largest use of recycled plastic in the state of Illinois: The entire boardwalk is made out of recycled plastic material.
One of our plans now is to take the Nature Boardwalk model and set it up at zoos across the country. In Denver the problem may be bears instead of coyotes, and in Florida the problem may be alligators, but you have those same interactions and you still need to create the spaces for harmony between the two. So we can help those other institutions, and we might even be able to find them a donor to get them started so that they can do it. Things like that are what really jazz me about this job—when we can do things that really make an impact, both here in Chicago and nationally.
photography by Todd Rosenberg