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Lincoln Park Zoo Celebrates its 150th Anniversary


This year marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln Park Zoo.

The zoo began with a gift of two pairs of swans from New York's Central Park, and has evolved into a world-class facility that now puts science and conservation at the heart of its mission.

And it can make one claim that few institutions like it can: Throughout those 150 years it has been free – and it remains the only privately managed, free zoo in the United States.

Kevin Bell has led the zoo for the past 25 years but first came to the zoo as curator of birds in 1976.

  • In 1868, New York’s Central Park Commissioners gifted Lincoln Park two pairs of swans. The swans are a sensation in Chicago, and Lincoln Park Zoo is established. (Courtesy Chicago Park District and Chicago History Museum)

    In 1868, New York’s Central Park Commissioners gifted Lincoln Park two pairs of swans. The swans are a sensation in Chicago, and Lincoln Park Zoo is established. (Courtesy Chicago Park District and Chicago History Museum)

  • The Sea Lion Pool, built in 1879 and shown here in the 1920s, once served as the zoo's focal point. (Courtesy Chicago Park District and Chicago History Museum)

    The Sea Lion Pool, built in 1879 and shown here in the 1920s, once served as the zoo's focal point. (Courtesy Chicago Park District and Chicago History Museum)

  • Western lowland gorilla Bushman, shown here sitting on his preferred chair in the 1940s, was arguably the most iconic zoo animal of his era. Bushman's chair will be on display at "From Swans to Science: 150 Years of Lincoln Park Zoo." (Courtesy Chicago Park District and Chicago History Museum)

    Western lowland gorilla Bushman, shown here sitting on his preferred chair in the 1940s, was arguably the most iconic zoo animal of his era. Bushman's chair will be on display at "From Swans to Science: 150 Years of Lincoln Park Zoo." (Courtesy Chicago Park District and Chicago History Museum)

  • Dr. Lester Fisher, Lincoln Park Zoo's first veterinarian, treats lowland gorilla Sinbad in 1948. Fisher would become the zoo's director in 1962, overseeing the modernization and improvement of animal care and veterinary strategies during his 30-year tenure. (Courtesy Chicago Park District and Chicago History Museum)

    Dr. Lester Fisher, Lincoln Park Zoo's first veterinarian, treats lowland gorilla Sinbad in 1948. Fisher would become the zoo's director in 1962, overseeing the modernization and improvement of animal care and veterinary strategies during his 30-year tenure. (Courtesy Chicago Park District and Chicago History Museum)

  • Zoo Parade filming in the 1950s: Lincoln Park Zoo Director Marlin Perkins brings wildlife into households with his TV program, Zoo Parade, headquartered at Lincoln Park Zoo. (Courtesy Chicago Park District and Chicago History Museum)

    Zoo Parade filming in the 1950s: Lincoln Park Zoo Director Marlin Perkins brings wildlife into households with his TV program, Zoo Parade, headquartered at Lincoln Park Zoo. (Courtesy Chicago Park District and Chicago History Museum)

  • Current Lincoln Park Zoo President and CEO Kevin Bell shown here in 1981, when he was the zoo's curator of birds. (Courtesy Chicago Park District and Chicago History Museum)

    Current Lincoln Park Zoo President and CEO Kevin Bell shown here in 1981, when he was the zoo's curator of birds. (Courtesy Chicago Park District and Chicago History Museum)

  • In 2017, a volunteer uses ZooMonitor, an app created by Lincoln Park Zoo to record animal behavioral data. (Todd Rosenberg / Lincoln Park Zoo)

    In 2017, a volunteer uses ZooMonitor, an app created by Lincoln Park Zoo to record animal behavioral data. (Todd Rosenberg / Lincoln Park Zoo)

“My dad was actually curator of birds at the Bronx Zoo in New York, so this is actually a family tradition,” said Bell, who has seen great changes in his 42 years at the zoo.

“There has been a great paradigm shift over the years. For many, many years zoos were just basically menageries where people came for recreation – just to have fun,” said Bell. “What has changed over the years is that we obviously need to do more to support the species that we have. We want to connect them to the species that we have in our institutions and teach them about how we can help these species in the wild.”

He also notes that conditions for zoo animals has also changed.

“When I came to the zoo in 1976 the birdhouse had concrete and tile. It was basically made so you could hose the cage down really well, soap it and clean it,” said Bell. “But the problem with that is that it may keep disease down to a certain degree but it tells people nothing about where these animals come from – there was no connection to the wild at all.”

But now, Bell notes, the conditions for the animals have improved and the mission of zoos has changed from simply displaying animals to helping educate the public about them to help preserve species in the wild.

“A lot of these animals, their populations are in deep trouble and we need to be able to protect them,” he said. “Zoos are a way for us to tell that story.”

Bell joins Carol Marin to discuss Lincoln Park Zoo’s anniversary and the future of zoos in the 21st Century.


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