Dr. Michael Adkesson, who for the past nine years has overseen the veterinary programs and hospital operations at Brookfield Zoo, has been named the new president and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates the zoo.
He replaces Dr. Stuart D. Strahl, who during his 18-year tenure presided over a transformative period at the zoological park. Strahl announced he would retire in February 2020, just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,
Adkesson, who begins in his new role on Oct. 15, has been vice president of clinic medicine since 2012, came to Brookfield Zoo in 2008 after a residency in zoological medicine at the St. Louis Zoo and University of Missouri. He started his career as a zookeeper at the Scovill Zoo in Decatur.
He attended the University of Illinois and completed an internship in small mammal medicine and surgery there. Adkesson also earned a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Illinois.
“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,” said Cherryl Thomas, chair of the Chicago Zoological Society’s board of directors in a press release. “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.”
Adkesson becomes just the third president and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society in 45 years, following Strahl and the legendary Dr. George Rabb. While the Chicago Zoological Society went outside of its organization to find a new leader when it hired Strahl in 2003, Adkesson, like Rabb, had more than a decade of experience at the institution before being named to the top job.
“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,” said Adkesson. “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.”
Adkesson has trained hundreds of veterinary students, interns and residents as an adjunct clinical professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and also has been involved in conservation efforts, having spent more than a decade overseeing conservation programs in Peru, with a focus on Humboldt penguins, Peruvian fur seals and other coastal marine wildlife. He holds an associate position with Cayetano Heredia University in Peru.
“I look forward to continuing to transform Brookfield Zoo through new animal habitats and memorable experiences that engage guests of all ages,” Adkesson said. “With species vanishing from this earth every day, zoos play a critical role in conservation today more than ever.”
Adkesson ascends to the Chicago Zoological Society’s top leadership role in the wake of a global pandemic that threw institutions like Brookfield Zoo into turmoil. The zoo was closed for more than three months in the spring/summer of 2020 and then reopened in July 2020 with limited capacity and all indoor attractions off limits to the public. After drawing just shy of 2 million visitors in 2019, Brookfield Zoo saw roughly half that number in 2020.
For the first time ever, due to the continuing effects of the pandemic, Brookfield Zoo chose to close its doors for the first two months of 2021. It wasn’t until June, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Phase 5 of the Reopen Illinois plan, that the zoo was able to allow visitors entry without timed tickets.
In September, Adkesson launched a COVID-19 vaccination program for some 300 animals in its collection deemed most at risk for contracting the upper respiratory disease. Just a couple of weeks later, one of the zoo’s Amur tigers tested positive for COVID-19, and Adkesson confirmed in a telephone interview that a number of other big cats, including snow leopards, lions, fishing cats and others also had tested positive, prompting the closure of the zoo’s Clouded Leopard Rain Forest and Desert’s Edge indoor exhibits to the public as a precaution.
None of the cases was serious, Adkesson said animals have recovered quickly. Having had one dose of the vaccine at the time they were infected helped limit the impact of the disease.
While zoo officials continue to deal with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, they are working to chart the future of Brookfield Zoo which, through Strahl’s leadership, underwent tremendous physical changes along with establishing the zoo as a preeminent educational institution.
Under Strahl’s direction, the Chicago Zoological Society created the Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare, dedicated to advancing high-level animal care in zoos, and the Center for Conservation Leadership, promoting coordination of fieldwork, zoo-based education and outreach.
Strahl implemented a strategic plan that sought to overhaul the zoological park, replacing some of the zoo’s oldest habitats, such as Ibex Island, Monkey Island, the Children’s Zoo, Bear Grottoes and Reptile House, and built habitats that not only showcased animals but promoted conservation education.
Among those new habitats was Great Bear Wilderness, with adjacent new exhibits for bison and Mexican gray wolves and the Wild Encounters exhibit, which replaced the Children’s Zoo while maintaining a mission to engage younger visitors with intimate animal interactions.
The Reptile House was converted into the Conservation and Education Center, while Monkey Island became the Hamill Family Nature Plaza, which not only serves as a place for wildlife/nature education but also builds on another of Strahl’s accomplishments – making Brookfield Zoo a destination for events and entertainment.
It was during Strahl’s tenure that Brookfield Zoo in 2009 unveiled The Pavilions, which accommodates gatherings of up to 300 people for weddings and other private and corporate events.
One of his last duties, Strahl told the Landmark in February 2020 when he announced his retirement, was to dive into an update of the Chicago Zoological Society’s strategic plan.
While the pandemic delayed some of that work, Adkesson told the Landmark that it was restarted several months ago and that officials have tackled a variety of subjects, from animal exhibits to facility needs and infrastructure to new visitor amenities.
“Hopefully in the not too distant future we’ll be unveiling an exciting plan,” Adkesson said. “No doubt, Stuart is leaving behind a tremendous legacy. We’re in a good place financially and have strong board support. I hope to pick up where Stuart leaves off.”