Leaving a Legacy

Steve Johnson

December 16, 2021

Steve Johnson

December 16, 2021

Steve Johnson is a former Chicago Tribune reporter who covered zoos and museums for a decade.

An unusual thing started happening at Lincoln Park Zoo during the pandemic. Kevin Bell, a man who already held the title of president and CEO of the institution, also became its postmaster.

“I walk around the zoo every morning,” Bell says during, perhaps not coincidentally, a walk around the zoo. “I’m always looking at how do things look. ‘Why is this trash can there? That’s the first thing people see.’ Those kind of discussions go on in my head.

“I also deliver the mail—that position unfortunately went away in our reduction of force due to COVID. And since I’m making the route all through the zoo, I just pick up the mail from the main office and bring it around the zoo in the morning.”

It’s a mark of Bell’s devotion to the zoo—and his practical, whatever-works-best approach to running it—that parceling out its letters and packages while also guiding its long-term strategic plan made perfect sense.

At the end of the year, though, the zoo will need to get a new mail carrier. After almost 30 years at the helm, Bell will retire from Lincoln Park Zoo and step into a life that he hopes to fill with other projects: consulting on not-for-profit leadership and conservation are two that he mentions. “I’m not going to take another job some place, but, I’ll do some things that I like doing,” he says.

While he may not be a Chicago household name or a television showman in the manner of his two long-term predecessors, Dr. Lester Fisher and Marlin Perkins, his time as leader has brought about profound change in the way the zoo sees itself, operates, and presents itself to the public.

“Lincoln Park, during the tenure of Kevin Bell, has turned into one of the great zoos in the country,” says Fisher.

With its 3.5 million visitors in a normal year making it by wide measure the most visited of Chicago’s museums and zoos, the zoo could have coasted on being free and accessible. But its growth and change since Bell took the job in 1993 have been relentless.

“Kevin has driven our culture of never being complacent about what we have today,” says Megan Ross, Ph.D., Bell’s protégé who was immediately named his successor upon his retirement announcement in early September. “He came to the zoo when it was a part of the Chicago Park District, and in a park district, you’re just one of many parks, right? And then when we privatized I think he started to realize, ‘Well, we can make this whatever we want to.’”

Ask Bell to name the most significant of the changes, and he’ll immediately cite the institution’s leadership role in zoos’ move to animal stewardship rather than mere presentation. Some forty scientists now work on staff studying everything from chimpanzees in Africa to coyotes in Chicago cemeteries, and the zoo has shifted its animal focus from quantity to quality.

“We’re not just keeping animals here, we’re asking, ‘Is their welfare good?’ Not just their health, but their welfare,” Bell says. “When I came as bird curator in 1976 we had more species of birds in the bird house than we have species of animals in the zoo now.”

“We’re not just keeping animals here, we’re asking, ‘Is their welfare good?’ Not just their health, but their welfare,” Bell says.

A backstage key to that change was the privatization Ross mentioned. In Bell’s early years at the helm, The Lincoln Park Zoological Society took over the operations of the zoo, giving it the opportunity to professionalize staff positions and chart its own fiscal course.

Among other things, Bell says, this meant not having to go before the park district board to get your eucalyptus vendor approved in order to feed the koalas the zoo used to house. Bigger picture, it has meant the zoo’s budget has risen roughly threefold, from $10 million annually to over $30 million, while the endowment has gone from $1.5 million to roughly $60 million.

More meaningful to the average visitor has been the facility’s physical transformation. Chain-link perimeter fencing was replaced by wrought iron. The pond on the zoo’s southern border went from hosting garish plastic paddleboats to being ringed by the impeccable, half-mile-long Nature Boardwalk, which has become one of the city’s great natural oases.

Bell is proud of not just the fauna on the grounds, but the flora—the way the botanical staff has beautified things so that the place is, literally, an officially-designated arboretum. And just as he’s done with the mail, Bell pitched in.

“When COVID first hit last year, I would do a lot of gardening at the zoo because many of our staff couldn’t come in,” he says, standing on the west side of the Waterfowl Lagoon. “So spring of 2020 one of my jobs was weeding this entire area, all the way from the bridge, pulling out all these tall weeds. It was a lot of work, but it was fun.”

Another point of pride: Keeping the zoo free. Before retiring, he made it a point to negotiate—even before the last contract expired—a new 30-year agreement between the zoo and the park district, which will keep the fundamental operating arrangement in place.

“To be able to say that you’re keeping the zoo free until 2050 is a big deal,” says Bell. “I think that’s where a lot of our support comes from—the fact that people know that by supporting the zoo they’re helping all of Chicago have this experience.”

Within the zoo grounds a more than $140 million building spree, as part of The Pride of Chicago capital campaign, in Bell’s final years has seen the old penguin house replaced by a compelling hillside Japanese macaque habitat. New, similarly state-of-the-art African penguin and polar bear environments have gone in, and the crowning achievement, Pepper Family Wildlife Center, modernized for a smaller group of animals but retaining its historic character.

“We’ve raised a lot of money, there’s no question,” Bell says. “Some of my colleagues around the country say, ‘Oh, you’re the best fundraiser going.’ I say, ‘I don’t think I’m the best fundraiser, but I’m in a city that’s extremely generous.’ And when you’ve got resources available, if you can tell a story, if you can have that passion come through to donors, they’re going to support that.”

When Bell took the top job at Lincoln Park in 1993, the headlines almost wrote themselves. Bell, after all, had grown up in a house on the grounds of the Bronx Zoo, where his father was curator of birds.

And, he admits now, he thought for a while that he was just marking time in Chicago until he could get back to his home zoo in New York City. But, he says, “first of all, I love Dr. Fisher—he was my second father; you couldn’t work for a nicer man—and there was so much going on here. And all of a sudden two years was like 20, right?”

By the time the odyssey ends in December, 20 years will be more like 45. And although he never lived on the Lincoln Park grounds, it’s fair to say he’s done just as much growing up here.

But that kind of reflection will have to wait for another moment. Kevin Bell, still the CEO for a couple of more months, spots a wayward piece of garbage on a zoo pathway, scoops it up, and deposits it in a trash can.

Fall/Winter 2021

The Pride of Chicago

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