Dr. George Rabb, whose professional connection to the Chicago Zoological Society and Brookfield Zoo spanned more than half a century, died July 27 at the age of 87. He was a longtime Brookfield resident.
From 1976 until his retirement in 2004, Dr. Rabb served as president of the Chicago Zoological Society. For the past 13 years, Dr. Rabb was president emeritus of the society, continuing to serve as an advocate for conservation and wildlife until a recent illness.
While no longer involved with the daily operations of Brookfield Zoo, Dr. Rabb threw himself into his many outside interests, including aggressively pursuing the amphibian extinction crisis.
“He was the person who brought that to the forefront,” said Dr. Stuart Strahl, who succeeded Dr. Rabb as president of the Chicago Zoological Society in 2004.
He testified before Congress, started organizations that focused on amphibians as the bellwether of environmental change, and was active with the Center for Humans and Nature, the Illinois State Museum and Chicago Wilderness.
“Leaving the directorship enabled him to do so much more locally, nationally and internationally,” Strahl said.
Dr. Rabb’s tenure at Brookfield Zoo began in 1956 when he was hired as curator of research at Brookfield Zoo after receiving his formal training in herpetology. He received his undergraduate degree in biology at the College of Charleston before earning master’s and doctoral degrees in zoology at the University of Michigan.
One of the first Ph.D.s to work full time in an American zoo, Dr. Rabb was named associate director for research and education in 1964. In that role, he began to emphasize the importance of zoos in education.
After being named president in 1976, he expanded that role by overseeing the creation of a series of immersive, naturalistic exhibits. While Brookfield Zoo had always had outdoor exhibits where moats, not steel bars separated visitors from the animals, Dr. Rabb took it a step further.
“George went toward much more naturalistic exhibits, getting people to really feel the presence of the animal,” Strahl said.
His impact went beyond the visible changes visitors experienced at Brookfield Zoo, Strahl said. When he was named president of the Chicago Zoological Society and director of Brookfield Zoo in 1976, Dr. Rabb inherited an organization that was financially on the brink, according to Strahl.
“We were in serious trouble when he took over,” Strahl said. “There were not enough sources of revenue.”
Dr. Rabb and board chairman Corky Hamill made what Strahl called a “sea change” in the way the society operated, petitioning the Cook County Forest Preserve District to increase the levy for the zoo and establishing a robust zoo membership program.
In addition, Dr. Rabb changed the way people thought about the zoo. No longer a place where visitors just came to view animals and toss them junk food, the zoo taught visitors about their role in maintaining the welfare of animals.
He also made the Brookfield Zoo a cutting edge institution, establishing the first nutritional lab and endocrinology lab and setting up a teaching veterinary hospital.
“It was about consistently improving the physical and mental well-being of animals and getting people to identify with animals,” said Strahl, who worked alongside Dr. Rabb as a member of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature from 1986 to 1992. “Caring is the core of conservation.”
Dr. Rabb received many awards throughout his career, including the 1996 Heini Hediger Award, the 1997 Silver Medal of the Zoological Society of London and the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment.
The Chicago Zoological Society named its George B. Rabb Conservation Medal after him, and a species of frog discovered in 2005 was named in honor of him and his wife, Mary, for their work as conservationists and herpetologists.
Dr. Rabb lived in Brookfield since arriving at Brookfield Zoo in 1956. For many years, he lived literally across the street from the zoo, at the corner of Hollywood and Rockefeller avenues. He later moved to another home in Brookfield, within a short drive of the zoo.
Strahl said the Chicago Zoological Society was planning to host a memorial service for Dr. Rabb sometime in September. The details have not yet been finalized.