Stuart Strahl, who has served as president and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo, for the past 17 years, has announced he’ll retire once the society’s board of directors completes a search for his successor.
It’s not clear how long that process could take – when Strahl was hired back in 2003, it came after a search that lasted more than a year – but he recently told the board he didn’t want to enter into another long-term contract.
“I have a daughter who lives in Montana … and I have other interests in the field of conservation,” said Strahl in a telephone interview with the Landmark. “We agreed to extend the term of the contract, and we’ll go on a year-by-year basis. It could be a year, it could be two years.”
The Chicago Zoological Society’s board has begun its search, said Strahl, and expects to begin receiving responses later this month. Then the interview process will begin.
Whoever is hired to replace Strahl will be just the third president and CEO in more than 40 years.
Strahl’s predecessor was the legendary George Rabb, who started working at Brookfield Zoo in 1954 and took the reins as director in 1976. Rabb, who had a large impact on the emergence of international conservation and environmental education, strongly influenced Strahl’s desire to lead the Chicago Zoological Society.
“What attracted me was Dr. Rabb’s view of conservation psychology and engaging with people,” said Strahl, whose years at the helm of the Chicago Zoological Society saw the transformation of Brookfield Zoo as an attraction. “He focused on: What are the sorts of things that will attract people who are not coming now?
Strahl and Rabb had connected during Strahl’s years working for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Latin America, where he founded conservation programs and led international symposia on South American conservation issues.
Hired in 2003, Strahl said at the time, “I never thought back then that I would ever follow in [Rabb’s] footsteps, and they’re big footsteps, indeed. … I’m excited to continue his legacy.”
One of Strahl’s first initiatives was to implement a “keeper chats” program, where those who care for the animals gave patrons up-close-and-personal encounters with some of the zoo’s animals.
“Keeper chats became things people scheduled their time around,” Strahl said.
An associated program, the creation of Animal Ambassadors, brought the zoo’s animals outside the gates into city neighborhoods and communities where connections with the natural world are lacking.
The “ambassadors” are some of the more charismatic in the zoo’s collection – like Quilbert, the prehensile-tail porcupine.
“The chance for a kid to see a porcupine or even a more domesticated species is remarkable, magical,” Strahl said.
Strahl’s most visible legacy is a comprehensive overhaul of the zoo campus and major exhibits, which were part and parcel of a strategic plan that sought to draw more people to the zoo and engage people who might otherwise not be engaged in the institution’s conservation mission.
Some of the oldest exhibits in the zoo, like Ibex Island, Monkey Island, the Children’s Zoo, Bear Grottoes and Reptile House were demolished or transformed to make way for ones that would further the message of conservation.
Great Bear Wilderness, an exhibit with an underground viewing area that gets patrons face to face with grizzly bears and polar bears, opened in 2009, along with the adjacent bison and Mexican gray wolves exhibits, showcasing once endangered species saved through conservation efforts.
The beloved but worn-out Children’s Zoo gave way in 2015 to Wild Encounters, still geared toward engaging younger patrons by giving them intimate experiences with animals.
The old Reptile House was transformed in 2013 into the Conservation and Education Center, with the decidedly obsolete Monkey Island next door being transformed last year into a nature plaza to further the mission of conservation and education.
During Strahl’s time, the zoo also forged a partnership with Riverside-Brookfield High School, which launched a special environmental curriculum – the School of Environmental Education, affectionately known as “Zoo School” – until RBHS ended the program in 2015.
The Strahl era also saw Brookfield Zoo reinvent itself as an event/entertainment venue. The Pavilions, a 216-acre outdoor event venue, opened in 2009, and the zoo has brought in annual traveling exhibits – from stingrays, butterflies and spiders to animatronic dinosaurs and life-size animals made from Legos.
In addition to the annual Holiday Magic event that has lit up the zoo since before Strahl arrived, the zoo has created more and more after-hours programming, from a full run of weekend outdoor concerts to wine, beer and whiskey tasting events and more.
The zoo’s aging infrastructure – the original structures are near 100 years old – remains a core issue for the future, with obtaining funding for improvements a central focus.
“Starting next week, we’ll begin recasting our 2006 master plan,” Strahl said. “We have a strong committee on the board and they’ll be developing a view of the future for the zoo and testing that in the community.
“I hope to leave here with a master plan that stretches out 15 years to our 100th anniversary, so the person coming in has a board focusing on new exhibits and doesn’t have to worry about attendance drivers.”
Whoever replaces him, Strahl said it needs to be someone focused on the mission of persuading people to engage with the natural world.
“I started out as a scientist before I discovered people,” Strahl said. “We need someone who understands the connections you can make between wildlife and people. We have to be more relevant in an ever-urbanizing America.”