King of the Jungle: CEO of Lincoln Park Zoo

When Kevin Bell first became director of the zoo, he had no managerial or administrative experience.

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
Age: 58
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

Bell is particularly fascinated by hornbills, which are indigenous to Africa and Asia. To lay eggs, the female seals herself in tree cavity with a tiny opening for the male to feed her through.

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.

Bell describes his management style as relaxed: "People call me by my first name."

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.

WATCH:

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.

Gibbons are born with blonde fur, but by age 2, their color turns to black. As adults, males remain black and females change back to blonde.

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.

Follow the Lincoln Park Zoo on Twitter at @LincolnParkZoo and check out its YouTube channel. Unless stated otherwise, all photos courtesy of the Lincoln Park Zoo.

PLUS: Other No Joe Schmos love animals, too. Jenny Litz is saving the Ecuadorian rainforest in $8 rubber rain boots!

Advertisements

Not Quite Ace Ventura: The Pet Detective

Kat (center) with two dog trainers from Italy who flew to Seattle to take her training course.

Cop-turned-pet detective Kat Albrecht risked losing all respect from her peers when she decided to become a pet detective. In 2001, she founded a national nonprofit organization to search for missing pets and ultimately trained over 125 pet detectives from across the United States, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Ireland, and Italy.

But remaining passionate with her work isn’t always easy. Kat reveals the secrets to her commitment – and her thoughts on Jim Carrey’s portrayal of the job in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.

Title: Founder, Missing Pet Partnership
Age: 50
Based in: Seattle, WA
Job description in one sentence: I help minister hope to grieving and broken-hearted pet owners who have lost their pets.
In the industry for: 13 years
Previous jobs: 9-1-1 dispatcher; police officer; K-9 trainer for police bloodhounds and cadaver dogs in Santa Cruz, Calif. I’m also working on a romance mystery for teens, which features a 17-year-old girl using her bloodhound to score points with a guy she has a crush on.

Why she chose nonprofit work: I want my work to exist beyond just myself, long after I’m gone.

How a roadblock sparked the job: Back in 1996, my bloodhound, AJ, escaped in the woods. I couldn’t find him, panicked, and called the sheriff’s department. They told me that they only look for missing people, and that I was on my own. I called a friend whose golden retriever had been used to track missing people, and he tracked down AJ in 20 minutes. That changed my life. A little while later, I was injured in the line of duty and had to medically retire from police work, so I attempted to form my passion for animals into a nonprofit organization.

How did you expand the concept? Using my skills and experience in crime scene work and lost person behavior, I launched the first-ever pet detective academy to train others to help people search for lost pets. Training dogs takes a lot of time, skill, and effort, so we’ve shifted direction with the economic recession to focus on developing a base of volunteer search-and-rescue teams. We’ve partnered with local animal shelters in the Seattle area to train their volunteers, and would like to blueprint that plan at shelters across the country.

Kat training a search dog to find lost cats. There's a cat inside that black mesh bag!

Was there a time you almost gave up? My first efforts failed, which was discouraging. I knew I was risking my reputation, risking looking like an idiot, risking getting scorned by my peers. That did happen.

What turned you around? One day, in 1998, I was driving down the road and saw a lost dog poster on a telephone pole that read, “please help us.” I started crying, and knew I’d never be able to forgive myself if I were to give up on the chance to make a difference in peoples’ lives.

How did you remain optimistic after initial failure? When you pioneer anything new, you end up making sacrifices. I made a decision and commitment that I wouldn’t give up, which has crossed over into other areas of my life, like losing weight. There are times when I may not be happy, but I’m committed.

What’s your biggest pet peeve? Drivers that tailgate. When I used to be a cop, I could do something about it, but now I’m so frustrated that I can’t. I can’t believe I got paid money [as a police officer] to drive fast, point guns at people, and frisk men.

Most important career advice? If you ever have a chance to be paid for your passion, then you’ve arrived. Lane Frost, a champion bull rider who died during a final bull-riding competition, once said: “Don’t be afraid to go after what you want to do, and what you want to be. But don’t be afraid to be willing to pay the price.”

Is your job anything like its portrayal in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective? I love Jim Carrey, but the movie is nothing like what we do. We’re helping people that are afraid and consumed with grief and fear, and often they don’t have happy endings.


LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Love pets and nonprofit work? Kat Albrecht offers insight into the business.

Neon posters and tagged cars are equipment Kat uses to help recover lost pets.

1. Don’t necessarily make a living around pet detective work – use it as a volunteer opportunity. It’s important to give back to the community, but make sure you have enough time to devote.

2. Stapling signs onto telephone poles isn’t the right way to go about finding pets. Check out these recovery tips, such as intersection alerts – standing near intersections with bright neon signs with the information and a number to call. That way, people who are driving will see them.

3. When a dog disappears, it’s not abducted; it goes somewhere. So it’s a matter of getting the word out there. Now more than ever, we’re trying to spread information through social media marketing. There are tons of opportunities for web-savvy teens to start their volunteer efforts that way.

You can follow Kat on Twitter at @KatAlbrecht and find the Missing Pet Partnership on Facebook. All photos are courtesy of Kat Albrecht.