Remembering Lincoln Park Zoo Director Dr. Lester E. Fisher

December 23, 2021

Lincoln Park Zoo is saddened to share former Zoo Director Dr. Lester E. Fisher passed away at the age of 100 on December 22. A Lincoln Park Zoo icon and household name, Dr. Fisher transformed the notion of what a zoo is during his 30-year tenure as zoo director of Lincoln Park Zoo, emphasizing the importance of education and conservation while furthering animal welfare and care.

“Dr. Lester Fisher laid the foundation for the institution Lincoln Park Zoo is today,” said C. John Mostofi, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Lincoln Park Zoo. “As zoo director, Dr. Fisher transformed the zoo from an old-fashioned facility into a center of care and conservation. He built the first Great Ape House with exhibits designed to mimic natural habitats, and today his name graces the Dr. Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, one of the world’s leading ape behavior and science centers. From joining the zoo in 1947 to his retirement in 1992, Dr. Fisher officially served Lincoln Park Zoo for nearly 45 years. But his service to wildlife and Lincoln Park Zoo continued long past his leadership tenure; as recently as this month Dr. Fisher was regularly in touch with President & CEO Kevin Bell and Zoo Director and CEO-elect Megan Ross, Ph.D. I am confident I speak on behalf of the entire Board of Trustees in stating that we are grateful for Dr. Fisher’s truly remarkable life, and we will protect and continue his legacy long into the future.”

Dr. Fisher’s journey to Lincoln Park Zoo was nothing short of remarkable and fascinating. During World War II, he served in the U.S. army where he cared for 5,000 messenger pigeons, as well as kept an eye on General George S. Patton’s famous bulldog “Willie”. From there, he became familiar with Lincoln Park Zoo through a friend of his who would be called to the zoo when an animal required medical attention.

Dr. Fisher was hired as Lincoln Park Zoo’s first veterinarian in 1947 and later served as Zoo Director from 1962 until his retirement in 1992. In total, Fisher’s career lasted nearly 45 years at the zoo.

As the zoo’s first veterinarian, he worked alongside Marlin Perkins, cultivating both a professional relationship with Perkins as well as a friendship. When Perkins left Lincoln Park Zoo in 1962, Dr. Fisher took over as the zoo’s new director. He became a Chicago household name through his many appearances on WGN.

As Zoo Director, Dr. Fisher transformed Lincoln Park Zoo into the state-of-the-art institution it is today—improving animal buildings and habitats and strengthening education and conservation initiatives. Species in the zoo’s care flourished during Dr. Fisher’s time at the zoo with expanded and modernized habitats.

Dr. Fisher had an affinity for gorillas, having spent time studying them in Africa. In 1976, Lincoln Park Zoo opened the Lester E. Fisher Great Ape House, which enabled the zoo to continue its groundbreaking work with western lowland gorillas.

Lincoln Park Zoo was home to the largest gorilla population in North America through Dr. Fisher’s expertise in great apes.

Since the opening of the Lester E. Fisher Great Ape House, it has since been replaced by the Regenstein Center for African Apes in 2004 to accommodate gorilla and chimpanzee groups and further welfare for the endangered species. Thanks to Dr. Fisher’s initial efforts, Lincoln Park Zoo’s great ape state-of-the-art facility remains one of the best of its kind and is known worldwide. Today, Regenstein Center for African Apes houses the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of apes, where it continues to further groundbreaking research with a team of scientists both at the zoo and at field sites in the Republic of Congo.

Dr. Fisher also built the first farm with domesticated animals in a zoo in the country, bringing agriculture to a large urban population. Farm-in-the-Zoo is still beloved by adult Chicagoans and youngsters alike.

Under his 30-year tenure, Fisher emphasized the importance of educating the public about the role zoos serve in society as conservation powerhouses. Visiting the zoo became an educational journey. He also encouraged animal care staff to further their education and hired experts who had the proper knowledge to provide world-class care.

One such expert Dr. Fisher hired in 1976 was Kevin J. Bell. Since then, Bell has served as Lincoln Park Zoo’s CEO & President for the past 26 years—passing the torch to CEO-Elect Megan Ross, Ph.D. in January 2022.

Dr. Fisher served as both a mentor and friend to Bell, providing support and advice when needed.

Lincoln Park Zoo President & CEO Kevin J. Bell said, “A big piece of my heart is lost. Les transformed ‘the old zoo’ into a leader internationally in both exhibits and programs. He was so beloved by every zoo director from all parts of the world, and in Chicago, he was a bit of a rock star. Walking around the zoo with him meant stopping constantly to sign autographs. People supported the zoo because they trusted Dr. Fisher, and he never let them down. I will miss him.”

Zoo Director and CEO-elect Megan Ross, Ph.D., added, “Dr. Fisher was a kind and gentle spirit who I had the privilege of learning from as I took on the role of zoo director. I will be forever grateful to him for meeting with me and Kevin as three generations of zoo directors, sharing his insights on the thrills and challenges of running an institution with animals in our care, and just sharing his stories from the 60s and 70s at Lincoln Park Zoo. His passing is a huge loss for the zoo community, and while I miss him personally, my heart goes out to his family and the many, many people whose lives he affected.”

The Lincoln Park Zoo family is saddened by this great loss. Dr. Lester E. Fisher’s remarkable efforts to transform Lincoln Park Zoo into a world-class institution and beloved Chicago destination are apparent by simply taking a trip to the zoo, where species of all kinds are flourishing in an urban oasis.

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