“Chicago Zoological Society Names Dr. Michael Adkesson President”

The Chicago Zoological Society (C.Z.S.), which operates the Brookfield Zoo in west suburban Brookfield, Illinois, announced on Friday, October 8, A.D. 2021 that the C.Z.S. Board of Trustees had selected Michael Adkesson, D.V.M., M.B.A., Dipl. ACZM & ECZM, President of the Chicago Zoological Society and Director of the Brookfield Zoo.  The decision to promote an internal candidate rather than to recruit the leader (or another high-ranking executive) at a different zoo concludes what the C.Z.S. described as “an intensive search” for a successor to Dr. Stuart D. Strahl, who led the C.Z.S. and Brookfield Zoo for an eventful period of eighteen years.  Dr. Adkesson’s appointment is effective on Friday, October 15, A.D. 2021.

“We are absolutely delighted Dr. Adkesson has accepted the leadership of the Society and Brookfield Zoo,” stated Cherryl Thomas, Chair(woman) of the Board of Trustees.  “With his strong background in veterinary medicine, science, research and conservation and his training and experience in business and management, we are confident he will ensure Brookfield Zoo stays at the forefront of conservation, that it continues to be a beloved place in the hearts and minds of our visitors, and that he will take the organization forward into the future.  Although it is impossible to replace someone of the stature of Dr. Strahl, Dr. Adkesson has the vision, qualities, skills, and experience the Board was looking for to lead Brookfield Zoo to new heights.”

“To be chosen as the President and CEO of a world-renowned institution of the significance of the Chicago Zoological Society is an absolute honor,” Dr. Adkesson stated.  “I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to lead this great organization and build upon the zoo’s rich history of success in animal care and conservation.  As one of Chicagoland’s top cultural institutions, Brookfield Zoo touches the lives of millions of people every year, inspiring them to conserve and protect animals and habitats.  I will remain steadfast in the Society’s commitment to providing the best in animal care and supporting its dedicated and passionate staff.  I look forward to continuing to transform Brookfield Zoo through new animal habitats and memorable experiences that engage guests of all ages.  With species vanishing from this earth every day, zoos play a critical role in conservation today more than ever.”

Figure 1 Credit: Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield Zoo Caption: This is Dr. Michael Adkesson, the Chicago Zoological Society’s Vice President of Clinical Medicine.  On Friday, October 8, A.D. 2021, the Brookfield Zoo announced that the Board of Trustees of the Chicago Zoological Society (C.Z.S.) had chosen to promote him to President & Chief Executive Officer of the C.Z.S. and Director of the Brookfield Zoo effective on Friday, October 15, A.D. 2021.  He will succeed Dr. Stuart D, Strahl, who led the C.Z.S. and Brookfield Zoo for 18 years.

Figure 2 Credit: Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield Zoo Caption: This is Cherryl T. Thomas, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates the Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield Zoo.  She joined the Board of Trustees in 1999 and served on several committees over the subsequent twenty-two years.  Most recently, she served as Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees and Co-Chair of the Community Engagement and Social Innovation Committee.  In July of 2021, the Board of trustees  elected her Chair.

Figure 3 Credit: Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield Zoo Caption: In addition to being Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates the Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield Zoo, Cherryl T. Thomas is also the Chief Strategy Officer of Ardmore Roderick, an engineering and construction management firm, having co-founded Ardmore Associates in 2003.  That firm merged with The Roderick Group in 2017 and became Ardmore Roderick.  President Bill Clinton appointed her Chair of the United States Railroad Retirement Board, and she held that post from 1998 to 2003.

Dr. Stuart Strahl has been the President and C.E.O. of the Chicago Zoological Society and Director of the Brookfield Zoo since 2003.  In a press release, the C.Z.S. stated, “During that time, he has led the Society’s pursuit of its mission to inspire conservation leadership by connecting people and communities with wildlife and nature on local, national, and international levels.   He spearheaded the creation of two new Centers of Excellence – the Center for the Science of Animal Care & Welfare, which had enhanced high-level animal care in zoos by applying a broad range of sciences to evaluate and improve animal well-being and the Center for Conservation Leadership, which serves as a nexus for coordinating fieldwork, zoo-based education, and outreach.  Through his vision, Dr. Strahl has developed enduring partnerships that provide service to urban communities of color, veterans, individuals with disabilities, and other populations.”

“In Dr. Adkesson, we have found an outstanding and committed leader who is dedicated to the conservation of wildlife, who is experienced manager, and who is widely respected by the staff and by professional colleagues for his work in the zoological field,” Dr. Strahl stated.  “There are many challenges facing zoos today, as well as the wild creatures and wild places of the world, and I am confident that Dr. Adkesson is committed to working to meet those challenges and keep Brookfield Zoo at the forefront.  Dr. Adkesson’s background, skills, training, and experience also ensure he will be the kind of leader ho will succeed.  I am pleased to be transitioning leadership of our beloved institution over to an established professional of his caliber and background who has already demonstrated his capacity and commitment.” 

Dr. Adkesson began his career as a zookeeper at the Scovill Zoo in Decatur, Illinois.[1]    He attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (U of I), where he completed an internship in small animal medicine and surgery.  He received his doctorate, a Doctor in Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.), in 2004.  A residency in zoological medicine followed at the Saint Louis Zoo in Saint Louis, Missouri and the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri from 2005 to 2008.  [Some readers might recall Marlin Perkins (1905-1986), the world-famous Director of the Lincoln Park Zoo, finished his career out as Director of the Saint Louis Zoo.]  In October of 2008, he accepted a full-time position as Associate Veterinarian at the Brookfield Zoo.    In 2012, he was promoted to Vice President of Clinical Medicine.  Between 2018 and 2020, he earned his Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) at U of I Gies College of Business.[2]

In that role, he oversaw the C.Z.S.’s veterinary programs and hospital operations.  For over a decade, in addition to his duties in Brookfield, he has gained field experience and provided oversight for conservation programs in Peru that dealt with Humboldt penguins, Peruvian fur seals, and other coastal marine wildlife.

As an adjunct faculty member at the U of I College of Veterinary Medicine, he has trained hundreds of veterinary students, interns, and residents.  “With a passion for growing local capacity for wildlife conservation, Dr. Adkesson also holds an associate position with Cayetano Heredia University in Peru, where he also provides student mentorship,” the C.Z.S. stated in a press release.

The American College of Veterinary Medicine and the European College of Veterinary Medicine both account him a board-certified specialist in zoological medicine.  Dr. Adkesson is a Professional Fellow of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (A.Z.A.), originally called the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.  He is a member and former president of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians (A.A.Z.V.).    Further, he is a member of the European Association of Zoo and Wildlife Veterinarians and the International Association of Aquatic Animal Medicine. 

His professional activities include writing peer-reviewed papers and making presentations at conferences.  He is the author or co-author of more than sixty publications and more than seventy-five abstracts and presentations.  “Dr. Adkesson is a tireless advocate for the importance of zoos in today’s society and believes zoos are uniquely positioned to inspire the public to care more about wildlife and nature,” according to the C.Z.S.

Dr. Adkesson has a wife he describes as “amazing.”  They have two children and several pets he describes as “adorable.”

A few weeks ago, Dr. Adkesson traveled with two other marine mammal care specialists to another institution to see Lucky, a forty-seven-year-old male bottlenose dolphin that had lived in the South Seas habitat until 2008.  Doctors at that other institution diagnosed Lucky with an oral tumor during a CT scan.  Pathologists from the U of I Zoological Pathology Program subsequently diagnosed Lucky with a squamous cell carcinoma, a cancer that veterinarians have found in dolphins both in the wild and in captivity.  Dr. Adkesson’s team escorted him back to Brookfield Zoo to receive treatment.  His flight to O’Hare International Airport was possible thanks to the generosity of FedEx. Lucky will remain at Brookfield Zoo when his treatment is over.

Figure 4 Credit: Jim Schulz, Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield Zoo Caption: Lucky, a 47-year-old male bottlenose dolphin returned to the Brookfield Zoo from another institution where he was a resident since 2008.  A CT scan at that other institution revealed he had an oral tumor.  Lucky will undergo cancer treatment at Brookfield Zoo and he will remain there when it is over.

Figure 5 Credit: Jim Schulz, Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield Zoo Caption: This is Lucky with Beth Miller, a senior animal care specialist with the Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo.

“Brookfield Zoo is one of less than a dozen zoos and aquariums with a CT scanner on site.  Having this diagnostic capability here at the zoo’s Animal Hospital allows us to continue to closely monitor Lucky’s condition and response to treatment,” stated Adkesson.  “In the weeks ahead, our team will be working with veterinary oncologists and surgeons to develop a treatment plan for Lucky.  We are hopeful and optimistic that we can treat his condition and provide him more healthy years ahead.”

On September 17, A.D. 2021, the Brookfield Zoo announced it had gained the largest bronze gorilla sculpture in the world… thanks to the tremendous generosity of a group of donors.”  The husband-and-wife team of Marc and Gillie Schattner (who call their partnership “Gillie and Marc”) created King Nyani to draw attention to the endangered species.  [Nyani is Swahili for gorilla.]  The sculpture (described as “interactive” in a press release) measures twenty-three feet long, eight-and-a-half feet high, and weighs 4,766 pounds.  It lies inside the Brookfield Zoo’s North Entrance.

The sculpture depicts a recumbent silverback gorilla.  What makes the sculpture interactive is that up to three people (if they are children or smallish adults) can sit in King Nyani’s outstretched right hand.  Previously, King Nyani was exhibited in Bella Abzug Park in New York City.  The Brookfield Zoo press release attributes the inspiration to “a wild family of mountain gorillas, a subspecies of the easter gorilla, that the Schattners experienced during a trip to Uganda” and that it was “based on the head of the family, a dominant silverback gorilla.” That may be so, but the sculpture is clearly also inspired by King Kong, the giant gorilla monster from the R.K.O. horror film King Kong (1933) and its many remakes, given the sculpture’s name.  On the Gillie and Marc Website, they acknowledge the inspiration of King Kong and make no mention of an encounter with mountain gorillas.  They, however, state there could be as few as 1,000 mountain gorillas and 3,800 eastern lowland gorillas.  On their Website, the Schattners sell smaller copies of King Nyani in two different media: bronze (for $1,400) and resin (for $350).  They also sell prints of him in various poses for $620.

Gillie grew up in Zambia and met Marc Schattner on a film shoot in Hong Kong and a few days later eloped in Nepal in the foothills of Mount Everest.  They like to point out that The New York Times called them “the most prolific creators of public art” in New York history. Many of their artworks feature their anthropomorphic characters Rabbitwoman and Dogman. 

“We wanted to create a sculpture where the public could really get close to the silverback (male adult gorilla), both physically and emotionally.  Being able to sit in his hand and look up at his gentle face we hope they will fall in love and join the movement to save the gorillas,” stated Gillie Schattner.

“Conservation is at the heart of everything we do at Brookfield Zoo, and creating opportunities to help understand the interconnectivity between humans, animals, and the environment is key,” Dr. Strahl stated.  “Like our iconic lion statues at our south entrance, we hope that King Nyani will create memorable moments for guests coming to the zoo for generations to come and inspire future conservationists.”

According to the C.Z.S. and Brookfield Zoo, “Gorillas are one of humans [sic] closest relatives, sharing 98 percent of the same DNA.  But, the eastern and western gorilla species as well as their subspecies are all critically endangered.  Illegal poaching, civil unrest, deforestation, energy production and mining, and climate change are making it harder and harder for the animals to survive in their native habitat.”

Brookfield Zoo has seven western lowland gorillas in residence.  They are JoJo, a forty-one-year-old silverback who arrived in 2012; Binti Jua, thirty-thre; Koola, twenty-six; Kamba, seventeen; Nora, seven, Zachary, five, and Ali, three. Some readers may recall that Binti Jua, became world-famous in 1996.[3] With baby Koola on her back, on August 16th she helped a 3-year-old boy who had climbed over a planter and railing and fell into the gorilla habitat. [4]   She cradled the unconscious boy and carried him fifty feet to the keeper’s access door. [5]

The C.Z.S. is a participating accredited North American zoo in the A.Z.A.’s Western Lowland Gorilla Species Survival Plan.  An S.S.P. such as the Western Lowland Gorilla S.S.P. is a cooperative population management and conservation program whereby zoos pool their resources to arrange for captive members of a species – in this case western lowland gorillas – to be brought together for breeding purposes.  For example, Zoo A, which has a male, might send him to Zoo B, which has a female.  Both zoos in that scenario benefit from the conception of offspring, as do all the other A.Z.A. zoos with other members of that species on hand.  This way, every zoo that has a history of having a particular animal species on hand need not maintain a whole breeding population on site, which might entail continuously capturing more animals in the wild.  Together, the zoos in a S.S.P. collectively “maintain a healthy and self-sustaining population that is both genetically diverse and demographically stable,” as the Brookfield Zoo explained in a press release. 

Figure 6 Credit: Cathy Bazzoni, Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield Zoo Caption: Last month, the Chicago Zoological Society announced the bronze sculpture King Nyani had permanently moved from New York City’s Bella Abzug Park to the Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Illinois. 

Figure 7 Credit: Cathy Bazzoni, Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield Zoo Caption: Adults and children alike can sit in King Nyani’s outstretched right hand.

Figure 8 Credit: Cathy Bazzoni, Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield Zoo Caption: The bronze sculpture King Nyani measures 23′ long, and 8′ 6” high.

Figure 9 Credit: Cathy Bazzoni, Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield Zoo Caption: The bronze sculpture King Nyani weighs 4,766 pounds.

Figure 10 Credit: Cathy Bazzoni, Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield Zoo Caption: Husband-and-wife sculptors Marc and Gillie Schattner (who call their partnership “Gillie and Marc”) created King Nyani to draw attention to the endangered species. 

Figure 11 Credit: Cathy Bazzoni, Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield Zoo Caption: The bronze sculpture King Nyani lies just inside the Brookfield Zoo’s North Entrance.

The Chicago Zoological Society is a private, non-profit organization that operates Brookfield Zoo on land owned by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County (which a few years ago started to re-brand itself as the “Forest Preserves of Cook County” as if the forests had gained sentience and banded together).  Founded in 1920 and chartered in 1921, the Chicago Zoological Society (C.Z.S.) brought to life the vision of Edith Rockefeller McCormick (1872-1932) to give Chicago a zoo without bars modeled on the Tierpark Hagenbeck, known in English as the Hagenbeck Animal Park, a privately-owned zoo in Hamburg founded in 1907 by Carl Hagenback, Jr. (1844-1913).  In December of 1919, Edith Rockefeller McCormick – the daughter of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and wife of Cyrus McCormick’s youngest son Harold Fowler McCormick (1872-1941) – donated eighty-three acres of land to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County to be the site of a modern zoo, to which the Forest Preserve District added ninety-eight acres.[6]     Charles L. Hutchinson (1854-1924), the President of The Art Institute of Chicago, recruited Chicago Tribune editorial cartoonist and correspondent John T. McCutcheon (1870-1949) to become the first president of the C.Z.S.  McCutcheon attributed this decision to the book In Africa he had written after he participated in the 1909 Carl Akeley (1864-1926) expedition for The Field Museum of Natural History.[7] 

The Brookfield Zoo opened in 1934, during the second year of Chicago’s second World’s Fair, A Century of Progress International Exposition (1933-34).  The zoo opened to the public on July 1, 1934. [8]   The expectation had been that about 33,000 people would attend, but about 58,000 people turned out.[9]  

Accredited by the A.Z.A., the Brookfield Zoo met the American Humane Association’s rigorous standards for the care and welfare of animals to become the world’s first zoo to receive Humane Certified™ certification. The C.Z.S.’s Animal Care and Conservation Fund raises money to care both for animals at the Brookfield Zoo and in conservation programs around the world.

Open every day of the year, the Brookfield Zoo is located between the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) and Eisenhower Expressway (I-290) and is also accessible via the TriState Tollway (I-294).  The North Gate Main Entrance address is 8400 West 31st Street, Brookfield, Illinois 60513.  The South Gate Main Entrance address is 3300 Golf Road, Brookfield, Illinois 60513.  A train station, the Hollywood (Zoo Stop) on Metra’s B.N.S.F. line, is a few blocks to the south of the South Gate entrance.  The phone number is (708) 688-8000.  The Website is www.czs.org/Brookfield-ZOO/Home.

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[1] Decatur is the county seat of Macon County in Central Illinois.  The Decatur Park District owns the Scovill Zoo.  Decatur lies along the shores of the Sangamon River and Lake Decatur.  It is home to Millikan University.  From 1969 to 2014, the food-processing conglomerate Archers-Daniels-Midland (A.D.M.) was headquartered in Decatur.  Although the company moved its worldwide headquarters to Chicago, Decatur remains the seat of its North American headquarters.

[2] The M.B.A. is the credential that allows a medical doctor or scientist to go from working in a hospital, clinic, or laboratory to becoming the head of that hospital, clinic, or laboratory.

[3] Douglas Deuchler and Carla W. Owens,  Images of America: Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Zoological Society. Charleston, SC; Chicago, IL; Portsmouth, NH; and San Francisco, CA: Arcadia Publishing (2009), p. 88

[4] Deuchler & Owens, p. 88

[5] Deuchler & Owens, p. 88

[6] Andrea Friederici Ross, Let the Lions Roar! The Evolution of Brookfield Zoo. Chicago: Chicago Zoological Society (1997), p. 2

[7] John T. McCutcheon, Drawn from Memory: The Autobiography of John T. McCutcheon.  Indianapolis and New York City: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. (1950), p. 422

[8] Ross, p. 34

[9] Ross, p. 40

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