Bon Voyage, Bill

Lincoln Park Zoo keeper Bill Allen with pony

Bill Allen greets Mr. Burns, one of the Shetland ponies at the Farm-in-the-Zoo, where Allen served two keeper assignments during his long career.

Bon Voyage, Bill

The zoo’s longest-serving keeper hangs up his uniform and reflects on a lifetime of caring for animals

Zoo visitors can be forgiven for not noticing Bill Allen. When you’ve worked with western lowland gorillas, African lions and other exotic species for a living, it’s easy to be overlooked.

Allen’s contributions as a keeper haven’t escaped the notice of his coworkers. Among the zoo’s animal care staff, past and present, few have labored as long as the gentle-natured, 74-year-old native Chicagoan. After 37 years, though, Allen decided he’d accomplished enough. He recently announced his retirement and punched the clock for the last time on Monday, December 3.

“I’m sorry I have to go, but it’s time. I’m getting too old for this stuff,” says Allen in his self-deprecating manner.

Allen worked at the Farm-in-the-Zoo for the past four years, caring for its domestic inhabitants and helping to keep the barns and holding areas in shipshape condition. Over the course of his career, he circulated through virtually every exhibit area at the zoo, tending to the needs of hundreds of animals. Many were extraordinary. But he started with a more modest assignment.

“My first job was taking care of ducks and geese at the Rookery,” recalls Allen of his first day on November 1, 1974. At that time, the historic, landscaped oasis just north of zoo grounds—since restored to its original glory as the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool—fell within the zoo’s jurisdiction and provided another exhibit area for animals.

“I was waiting for someone to come, help me set up and get me my uniform. And I was thinking, ‘This is pretty great. I’m going to be working at the zoo.’ I’d gone to the zoo many times as a child and seen [legendary silverback gorilla] Bushman at the old Primate House. But it wasn’t until the end of the day that the lead keeper came by and said, ‘Sorry, I forgot about you.’ I thought, ‘Well, that’s not a good start!’ ”

It was a different era in zookeeping culture. “Most of the keepers were males at that time,” says Allen, “many of them older people who’d been here for quite a while. So they weren’t too willing to teach me what I had to do. I had to watch them and learn on my own. They were a little concerned I might take their job away.”

Keepers then had to take a civil service exam administered by the Chicago Park District. Ironically, the highest-scoring applicant in the year Allen took the test was a woman. In the years since, and as the Lincoln Park Zoological Society assumed management of the zoo, that gender imbalance underwent dramatic change. So did many other aspects of animal-care policy and practice as the zoo’s mandate shifted toward conservation research guided by scientific methodology.

“It’s a new zoo,” says Allen. “It has modernized and looks a lot nicer than it did 30-odd years ago. There are all sorts of things keepers do to help with that science. When I first started, we kept our records—observations of the animals and so forth—in ordinary notebooks. Then it progressed to daily keeper reports and computers.”

Allen also witnessed major changes in animal training. Many took place after former zoo director Dr. Lester E. Fisher established the zoo’s first hospital in 1976, initiating the development of a full-time, multidisciplinary veterinary staff.

“Initially, we weren’t supposed to do training,” says Allen. “Obviously, now it’s done for the purpose of veterinary care. We can take better care of the animals and give them medication if necessary, for instance, without them getting so upset.”

The educational backgrounds of keepers and other animal-care staff also advanced during Allen’s years at the zoo.

“I don’t have a college education, and when I started, I’d have to say 75 percent of the people I worked with didn’t have one either,” says Allen. “We learned by experience. It’s different now. A lot of people have come in with new ideas and changed things, and those changes have been good for the animals. Enclosures and buildings have fewer exhibits and animals. Animals have more space. The Lion House is a good example of that. There were a lot of smaller exhibits there at one time.”

Shortly after his rocky start at the Rookery, Allen joined the staff at the McCormick Bird House in 1974. “At that time it had glass-enclosed exhibits on the east and west sides and two free-flight areas. Lots of birds flying around. More parrot species too. They used to sing and make noises and perch on the railing near the public.”

He also remembers when the zoo’s hoofstock animals occupied a holding area on the north end of the zoo; when the Regenstein African Journey building, in a previous incarnation, boasted a bear run on its west side (that included polar bears); and when the Children’s Zoo—his favorite assignment—featured numerous exhibits with adjacent enclosures where keepers provided hands-on encounters with a large variety of animals. Allen also worked at the Kovler Lion House, Regenstein Large Mammal House (later revamped as the immersive, ecosystem-focused Regenstein African Journey) and—for 13 years, his longest stint—at the Lester E. Fisher Great Ape House, the predecessor to today’s state-of-the-art Regenstein Center for African Apes. The former ape house set a pioneering precedent with indoor and outdoor exhibit areas that permitted gorillas and chimpanzees to live in thriving family troops.

“When I first stepped into the ape house, I think there were about 20 gorillas there," recalls Allen. “I looked at them and thought, ‘How the heck am I going to identify all these guys?’ But everybody had a personality, so it wasn’t as if you couldn’t figure out who they were once you were there long enough. They were all very different.”

So is Allen, whose steadfast commitment to Lincoln Park Zoo’s animals was interrupted by only one disruption: a 6-month bout with illness two years ago that he fought his way through in order to return to duty and end his career on his own terms.

“I proved to myself that I didn’t have to leave because of a sickness, that I could do the job,” says Allen. “I’m grateful that I’ve been here this long and did what I’ve done. I’m not going to make any great changes to the zoo or the rest of the world, but it was fun and I enjoyed it.”

by Craig Keller • Published December 10, 2012

Past Meets Present
See more zoo history, including the 100th anniversary of the Kovler Lion House, in the Winter 2012 issue of Lincoln Park Zoo magazine: Past Meets Present.