Growing up in the Bronx, the first sounds Kevin Bell heard in the morning were not honking cars and alarms, but rather the Tarzan-like screeches of white-cheeked gibbons and barks of sea lions.
To be fair, he didn’t live in the Bronx as most of us imagine it. At age 5, his family moved into a home behind the Reptile House at the Bronx Zoo, where he was surrounded by 252 acres of animals. He helped out his dad, who worked as zoo’s bird curator, and spoke to the giraffes and hippos at night until it was time for bed. He knew immediately that it was his calling.
After completing his Master’s studying the Atlantic Puffin off the coast of Maine, Bell was hired at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Ill., one of the nation’s oldest zoos housing 1,200 animals representing 230 species. Now, 35 years later – as the zoo’s president and CEO – he reveals the challenges of running a nonprofit, why he’s not worried about a Bronx Zoo cobra situation, and how he gauges potential new hires (hint: it’s not resumes).
Title: President and CEO, Lincoln Park Zoo
Graduated from: Syracuse University, degree in biology; State University of New York, Master’s degree
Has worked at the zoo for: 35 years, and 18 years as president/CEO
Previous jobs: Curator of birds at the Lincoln Park Zoo
Visitors per year: 3 to 4 million
You’ve worked at the Lincoln Park Zoo your entire post-college life. I was hired there directly after graduate school. After working as the bird curator for 18 years, I became assistant director of the zoo for six months, and then director. After we privatized the zoo in 1995, my title became president/CEO.
What do you do all day? I oversee the overall direction of the zoo and concentrate a lot on fundraising. This is a free zoo, and doing something good for the public adds a feel-good part to the job. But you need an incredible amount of resources to operate a nonprofit organization.
What background did you have with animals? My father was the bird curator at the Bronx Zoo, and we moved to the zoo grounds – behind the reptile house – when I was 5 years old. Surrounded by 252 acres of animals, I had the zoo to myself in the evenings and early mornings. I spent all my time there until I left for Syracuse.
Did you help out your dad? Yes – I had chores. In the birdhouse, I carefully turned hundreds of eggs a quarter-inch in the incubator. I took care of some of the hatchlings since I was there 24 hours a day – even after the keeper staff went home.
Living at the zoo is many a little kid’s dream. I’d feed the giraffes and hippos and talked to all the animals. I was convinced they knew me; many animals develop relationships with their keepers and recognize familiar faces.
Something people don’t know about your job: That I started out as an animal person, and that I had no administrative or fundraising experience when I took over as president and CEO. I learned on the job.
Most important lesson learned: The impact zoos have, especially in urban areas like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. So many kids don’t get outside the city – not to mention to Asia or Africa – so their only bond with wildlife is coming to the zoo. Elementary school kids are amazed when they come here and realize where milk comes from, where the food on their tables comes from. It’s a great way for them to see that science can be fun.
Best part of your job: When I get frustrated with personnel issues, I go over and see a giraffe or feed a rhino; they don’t get in bad moods. I also love walking around as a visitor and experiencing the zoo from that side of the equation. I’ll walk up to other visitors and tell them a fun fact that I think they may not know.
Most challenging part of the job: Balancing the budget in a tough economy. Attendance is free, but right now, revenue is way down since people aren’t spending a lot of money inside the zoo.
Responsibilities as bird curator: I traveled a lot as bird curator, doing fieldwork on birds in Central America, Iceland, and Indonesia. It was the best job in the world.
Favorite animal: You might expect it to be a bird, but I love tigers – they’re absolutely magnificent creatures. Unlike lions, tigers are very secretive and elusive; to see one in the wild is an amazing event. I also love great apes and the Himalayan takin, which is kind of like a sheep-goat.
Do you worry about escapes, like the Bronx Zoo’s cobra? You worry more about the visitors that don’t respect fences. With 50,000 visitors in a day, there are bound to be a few unstable people walking through who have had a few beers. That said, if a dangerous snake got out at Lincoln Park, it would be almost impossible for it get into a public space.
How would you describe your management style? Relaxed and informal – people call me by my first name. I’m a bit of a micromanager, but that’s because I’ve gone through the system and understand most of the jobs really well.
Coolest animal at the Lincoln Park Zoo: I try to stay away from favoritism, but the white-cheeked gibbon is pretty cool. It has long arms and fingers and swings between trees, Tarzan-style. They also communicate with a Tarzan holler that carries through the jungle.
Do you live on the grounds of the zoo now? No; I live a few blocks away.
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. A liberal arts education, including some business management and economics classes, is great for people interested in nonprofit management. The key to fundraising is building relationships with people, so that they get to know and trust you – and at the basis of that is being to talk to people about everything from arts to politics. You need that broad background to relate to people.
2. Volunteer for every possible job at a company. As bird curator, I volunteered to do things like budgets and inventory, and not because I had the skills. It ultimately made me a better manager.
3. Get comfortable communicating with others on a large scale. Now, I give speeches to 2,000 people, but when I first took the job as director of the zoo, I was terrified to talk in front of 25 people.
PLUS: Other No Joe Schmos love animals, too. Jenny Litz is saving the Ecuadorian rainforest in $8 rubber rain boots!