The Bell Curve
Zoo President Reflects on a Life in Zoos
He’s been part of the Lincoln Park Zoo family since 1976, but 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of Kevin Bell leading the institution. It’s a milestone recognized by the city—and evident in dozens of new buildings, scientists and educators throughout the zoo. Although he was reluctant to take the spotlight, Kevin agreed to reflect on a life working with wildlife in a conversation with former zoo writer Dave Wieczorek.
An Early Beginning
Kevin Bell was in his early 20s when he came to Chicago. He always figured that one day he would return to his native New York, where his love of animals and the zoo life were nurtured.
He grew up with a 252-acre playground right outside his front door, the kind most kids can only imagine, one filled with exotic species from around the globe. This wild kingdom of a playground? The Bronx Zoo.
“The service area was in the dead center of the zoo, and our house was right behind the reptile house,” recalls Bell, who was 5 when his family moved to the zoo, where his father, Joseph, was curator of birds. “Whether I went to school or out on a date, you had to drive through the zoo to get to the gate. It wasn’t like you could walk out the door and catch a bus.”
The playground came with a price, one Bell gladly paid.
“When I came home from school, my dad had a long list of chores and responsibilities for me every day,” he says. “I had to go to the bird house and turn the eggs in the incubator or take care of a sick animal. It was work that I was doing at a pretty early age. I wasn’t getting paid for it, but I loved it. It was fun.”
Thirty-seven years after arriving in Chicago, Bell is still here, happily so, as much a son of Chicago as anyone not named Daley. He left the Bronx Zoo in 1976 to become, at 23, the youngest bird curator ever at Lincoln Park Zoo. In 1993 he followed in the footsteps of his mentor, Dr. Lester E. Fisher, as the zoo’s director and was named president and CEO in 1995. In October 2011, he was elected to the council of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, where he helps “lead strategic efforts to build the world’s largest conservation movement.”
This year marks Bell’s 20th anniversary year as head of the zoo—an ideal time to reflect on a career committed to animals, conservation and public education. Unsurprisingly, his story begins with those boyhood days at the Bronx Zoo, where the foundation for a life’s calling was laid.
A Boyhood in the Bronx
The Bells moved onto the grounds of the Bronx Zoo in the late 1950s when Kevin was 5 years old. Almost immediately he was thrown into the world of animals, working right through his college years at Syracuse University with species from hummingbirds to gorillas.
The Bronx Zoo is where, fishing pole in hand, he would sneak into the waterfowl exhibit after hours through a secret pathway and catch fish from the pond. It’s where he learned about animal care at the knee of his father, Joseph, and where he absorbed some of the vast knowledge of eminent scientists like former Bronx Zoo curator Lee Crandall and naturalist-explorer-author William Beebe—“cornerstones of our industry and conservation in general”…and regular guests in the Bell home.
Sometimes at night, after his chores and schoolwork were done, “I’d take one of the keepers’ carts to drive around the grounds. I had keys to the buildings, so I could go in and feed a giraffe if I wanted to. I had a pet timber wolf that was sick, so I would go to the hospital to take are of it. For a kid, that’s about as good as it gets.”
“It helped shape my life,” says Bell. “The Bronx Zoo was a premier institution, though I probably didn’t appreciate that then as much as I do now. As a boy growing up I was surrounded by some of the top animal people in the world who made lifelong impressions on me.”
Pathway to a Vision
While Bell didn’t intend to spend his entire career at Lincoln Park Zoo, his roots grew deep over 18 years as curator of birds.
“At a time when a lot of people might have a mid-life kind of thing, that’s when I became zoo director, in 1993,” he says. “Then in January 1995, we moved to private management, and I became president and CEO.”
Life as he knew it changed dramatically.
“When I left New York in 1976 for the bird curator job, I was nervous,” Bell remembers. “I’d never managed a person in my life. The then-director of the Bronx Zoo said, ‘I’m glad you got this job at Lincoln Park Zoo. Go and make mistakes and learn from them. In a couple of years come back and work at a real zoo.’ ”
The director was joking about the “real zoo” part, but Bell quickly learned that Chicago had a “real” zoo too, one that was about to experience a phenomenal growth spurt.
“When I got to Chicago, we were just starting the first of five capital campaigns that ran one after another,” he says. (The last two, which he headed, raised more than $125 million.) “So even as a curator, I was immediately entrenched in building something new and exciting. By the time all that happens, you’ve been there 10 or 15 years.”
He continues: “I was actually at a point where I was saying to myself, ‘Maybe this is a good time to look someplace else.’ My longtime boss, Dr. Fisher, had retired in 1992 after 30 years, and in 1993 the board of the Lincoln Park Zoological Society approached me and said, ‘We’d like you to stay here and be the zoo’s director.’”
The zoo’s 1995 shift to a public-private partnership marked a major turning point in the institution’s history—and his career. For 127 years, Lincoln Park Zoo had been run by the city park system. Now the board was running Chicago’s free zoo with Bell as the President and CEO.
It was a big change, and a welcome one too. “As a curator you think of things on a department level. When you want to do something you have to go convince the director, and then the director convinces the board,” says Bell. “When you’re in the position of director or president, you can talk directly to the board about your passion. That’s an easier pathway to seeing your vision of the institution become reality.”
Two Father Figures
Given his background, it may seem that Bell came entirely naturally to his interest in animals, zoos and their mutual welfare. But he also credits “two” fathers for encouraging this passion: Joseph Bell and Les Fisher.
“My father exposed me to all the history and science of animal care going on at the Bronx Zoo in the 1950s and ’60s. I learned from the true legends in our industry like Lee Crandall, who wrote The Management of Wild Animals in Captivity. When shipments of animals came in from around the world I’d be there with my dad and Lee. All that had a tremendous influence on me even before I was a teenager.”
Bell and his father, who passed away in 1986, took long walks together and were frequent bird-watching companions. Fisher, whom Bell calls “my second father,” filled a different role.
“When I left New York for Chicago, the last thing my father said was, ‘You’re Mister Bell now. You’re not Kevin Bell anymore.’ My dad had always been Mr. Bell to the staff, a more formal relationship. When I came to Chicago people were calling the director of the zoo, who was a veterinarian, ‘Les.’ That was a huge cultural change for me.”
Fisher’s genuine nice-guy personality helped Bell navigate the change.
“Les would talk to everybody in the zoo just about every day he worked here. He would make the rounds and stop to talk with every keeper, listen to the updates on animals, listen to the gossip. Les was a very gentle man and still is,” says Bell of the 92-year-old Fisher, with whom Bell still shares zoo news—and a bit of gossip—during their occasional breakfasts.
As a curator, Bell wanted to do more than just curate birds. “So Les had me doing non-curator jobs,” he says. “I was the liaison with the Chicago Park District, doing the budget before we privatized. I kept asking him for more things to do, so I ran the commissary and just about every other part of the zoo operation. Les allowed me the opportunity to grow—and I just soaked it all in.”
Fisher also has praise for his former curator—and now peer in the director’s seat. “When Kevin came on as director of the zoo in 1993, I knew he had the basics to do an outstanding job, and history has proven that true. He stepped to the plate with bright new ideas and created a true zoological garden that our name implies.”
Adding New Priorities
As Fisher indicates, the visitor experience—the “zoological garden”—has remained a priority during Bell’s tenure. But perhaps the biggest change over the past 20 years has been a new emphasis on conservation and education.
“When I became director, one of the challenges I put upon myself was bringing our zoo to the same level I’d experienced at the Bronx Zoo,” says Bell. “Lincoln Park Zoo was small but in an urban area that could be very supportive of the institution. I thought a small zoo should be able to do what the Bronx Zoo was doing: research, conservation, education and engaging the community.
The first thing the new director sought to do was “eliminate those buildings that I wouldn’t want to take my biggest donor by the hand and walk him through. I wanted to make sure that all of us felt really good about the exhibits we had.”
For the first year and a half, Bell focused on developing a public-private partnership with the community after Mayor Richard Daley and then Park District Superintendent Forrest Claypool handed over zoo management to the Lincoln Park Zoological Society.
“I had no business background, so for me there was a huge learning curve,” says Bell. “Now when I look back and answer the question, ‘What am I most proud of?’ I say that all the new facilities are great—and the Nature Boardwalk is just about the best thing we’ve ever done—but for me for me it’s conservation and science. We had two people working in the Conservation & Science Department in the early ’90s. Now we have more than 40.”
Fisher concurs with this assessment, saying, “I think his expansion of conservation and science elements will be the major legacy of his tenure.”
Partners Make It Possible
Looking back in his time as zoo director, Bell is quick to credit key collaborators over the years. A crucial link to the community was Mayor Daley. As Bell says, “One of the things that made this job special was developing a good relationship with Mayor Daley. He was very encouraging and supportive.”
Another ally and mentor was Barbara Carr, who was executive director of the Lincoln Park Zoological Society when Bell was named zoo director. “Barbara is one of the great fundraisers of all time,” says Bell. “She taught me a tremendous amount about donor relations. Without her, I don’t know if I would have succeeded.”
Most of all, though, Bell is quick to credit the city—and community—that continues to support its free zoo. One thing he’s learned about Chicagoans is that their loyalty to Lincoln Park Zoo is unshakeable.
“Even during the rough economic times, people still supported the zoo,” he says. “If you look at cultural institutions across the country, we all suffered, but the zoo’s supporters never wavered in their commitment. They realized this was the one place people could go in a tough economy without spending money. It was like a sign of faith in us and in our mission. When we went private, there was some concern that we would start charging admission, but the board and the city were totally behind keeping the zoo free. And now we’re the largest privately managed free zoo in the country.”
Great People, Great Results
While Bell is happy with the accomplishments of his tenure, he never wants success to breed complacency.
"When I used to go see Mayor Daley, we always talked about what he called BBFs. Is what you want to do the biggest? Is it the best? Is it the first? That stuck with me. We could never do things the biggest, but we could hire the best people possible and build the best exhibits possible. We want to do things other institutions will look at and say, ‘Lincoln Park Zoo was able to do that. Maybe we could do the same thing.’ ”
Back in 1990, for example, zoo directors were reluctant to hire Ph.D.s. “because they’re academics, they create problems, they’re not good with donors,” says Bell, echoing the conventional wisdom of the time. But he brought on Ph.D.s who charmed donors with their personalities and their groundbreaking work with animals. People like Elizabeth Lonsdorf, Jane Goodall’s student in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, who was an expert in chimpanzee tool use.
The former director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes is now an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. And Ph.D.s are now routine hires at zoos across the country.
A recent zoo scientist in the spotlight is Anna Czupryna, research coordinator for the Serengeti Health Initiative in the zoo’s Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology. Czupryna studies domestic dog population dynamics in the area around Serengeti National Park. Her work was the focus of three front-page features in the Chicago Tribune this January.
“The headline on one Tribune story about Anna’s project said: ‘Lincoln Park Zoo helps wipe out rabies in Africa’—my gosh!” says Bell. “The board is asking me, ‘Did you write that headline?’ I said, ‘No, we didn’t. But we positioned one of our scientists for the Tribune to be able to write that.’”
The Magic Never Ends
With an operating budget now surpassing $20 million and every building on the grounds either newly constructed or renovated since 1981, it’s safe to say Lincoln Park Zoo isn’t the same zoo Kevin Bell walked into in 1976. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is his passion.
When he takes solo early-morning walks through the zoo, he looks around and “gets a sense of pride. I feel good about what we’ve done and are doing.” He laughs, then adds: “More often than not, and the staff knows this, when I come back from walking the grounds I usually have a list of ‘I like this, I didn’t like this, we should work on that.’ I try to look at it from a visitor’s perspective: Is it all working? Are we achieving what the visitor expects from us?”
He’s still proud of the zoo’s latest effort, the $12 million Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo, which has won several awards for design and function. But he’s already looking ahead to the next major undertaking. Groundbreaking for a new Japanese macaque exhibit will take place this summer on the site of the old Regenstein Penguin-Seabird House. The exhibit is expected to open in fall 2014.
“I’m not working hands-on every day with animals like I used to,” says Bell. “My job as president and CEO is more fundraising and visionary for the institution.” He pauses, then adds with a laugh: “The great thing is if I get frustrated working with people, I can go spend time with the animals.”
For Bell, it has been a long, rewarding adventure. But the father of two boys, Joey 12, and Charley, 10, admits the day could come when he may want “to spend more time with my kids and turn the zoo over to someone else. After a while, you need new life in institutions.”
Not just yet though. The fires of his passion, first stoked at the Bronx Zoo, are far from cooling.
“I’ve always loved the science involved in zoo work,” says Bell. “I enjoy sitting in on Urban Wildlife Institute meetings or with the Fisher Center staff when they’re talking about the cognitive things they’re doing with apes. I sit there saying, ‘This is fantastic. I love this stuff.’
“Oh, absolutely,” he concludes, “there’s still a little kid in me.”
by Dave Wieczorek • Published July 16, 2013
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