The Ark in Lincoln Park: A Conversation with Mark Rosenthal, Retired Curator of Mammals a Lincoln Pa

One of the oldest zoos in the nation, the Lincoln Park Zoo has been a leader in the zoo field for over a century. No one knows this better than Mark Rosenthal, retired Curator of Mammals from the zoo. He has an intimate knowledge of its history few have both from personal experience and documenting the stories of others. Rosenthal authored The Ark in the Park, a book on the history of the zoo, and since retirement has run the Zoo and Aquarium Video Archives, which contain hours upon hours of video interviews with retired zoo professionals. Here is his story.

@ Mark Rosenthal

Rosenthal grew up across the street from the Lincoln Park Zoo and visited frequently. “I was there every day and watched Zoo Parade every Sunday,” he remembered. “You’d go to Lincoln Park Zoo and know Marlin Perkins, the famous zoo director was filming. One day my mother corralled him and I got to meet him. Marlin said if you want to enjoy your life work at the zoo. If you want to make money don’t work at the zoo. Years later when I was a zoologist at the zoo, I said something about the rabbit village they were like how do you know that and I said because I remembered as a kid visiting everyday. As a kid I was always seeing those things.” While Rosenthal always wanted a summer job at the zoo, he was never able to land one. “Chicago is a political city- you had to know somebody to get the job,” he said. “It never happened and I always got another job.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

In Mark Rosenthal’s junior year of college, he finally landed a zoo job through a cousin who “unbeknownst to [him] was very politically ingrained in the Chicago system.” He started as a summer laborer at the Children’s Zoo for two summers during his last two years of college. “Once I graduated, they had a job in an older building they used as a commissary that had a marmoset colony,” Rosenthal recalled. “That colony was the original start of Lincoln Park Zoo’s research since they bred marmosets for cancer research that was being done. They needed someone part-time to take care of them. When I would bring friends to the building, they would say boy does it smell in here but I never noticed it since I was so engrained in what I was doing.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

Rosenthal’s big break came when the Lincoln Park Zoo and the City of Chicago held a civil service exam for animal keepers. The civil service exam allowed full-time keepers to be hired. “Many of the keepers at the zoo were temporary appointees since they didn’t hold a civil service position [for so long],” Rosenthal explained. “The zoo didn’t want an exam because they would lose all those temporary positions. Some temporary appointees were there for years and years since they wouldn’t do a civil service exam for years and years. I was one of the people who took the exam, I scored well and was hired as an animal keeper. They put me everywhere- I worked all of the buildings, the nursery and everywhere else in the zoo.” He gained a lot of valuable and diverse hands-on experience which made him well prepared to move up in the zoo.

@ Mark Rosenthal

Rosenthal told a story about his ‘initiation’ into zookeeping. “When I was an animal keeper I was assigned to the Primate House,” he recalled. “Sinbad, the lone large male gorilla, would thorw poop on people he didn’t know. All the senior keepers knew Sinbad didn’t know me so they assigned me to clean the north end of the building. Many of the senior keepers were waiting in the kitchen to watch Sinbad give me his business. I’m cleaning and get to Sinbad’s cage. I notice he has a handful of poop in his hands and he’s ready to throw it at me. these guys aren’t lifting a finger so I thought I’m not going to run but pretend I’ve always been there. I started whistling and Sinbad is looking at me. I just get to the door when Sinbad rushes and throws his stuff but I ducked and was unhit. These guys were laughing and thought it was so funny.”

@ Mark Rosenthal

“When I was a zoologist, I knew and learned how to rope,” Rosenthal said. “They were trying to separate a bison calf from its mother to determine its sex. the keepers were throwing the rope the wrong way and I told them so once keep gave me the rope and said you do it better. I took the rope, threw it and got right on that bison. I was smart enough to know Mark walk away and hand the rope to the keeper.”My reputation as an expert roper was made that day.

@ Mark Rosenthal

“At the time, they had keepers who took care of the animals, senior keepers who were managers of a certain section and zoologists, who were essentially curators,” Mark Rosenthal remarked. “Above the zoologists was a general curator, who was more of an administrator position. Shortly after I became keeper, zoologist left and here was the position for zoologist. I applied immediately- I had the education and some experiences working within the zoo. Someone else got it and I was very disappointed but I kept doing my keeper stuff. Then all of the sudden the general curator, George Irving, retired and Dennis Meritt was promoted to general curator so now they had an opening for zoologist again. I applied again for the job and was fortunate enough to get it. I got to work with mammals under Dennis Merritt.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

“As a young zoologist, I was put in charge of certain sections of the zoo,” Mark Rosenthal noted. “I was given the grunt work, which was good for learning, and had to make all the signs to be put up in the zoo. They had this engrave graph machine for making the signs and if you made a mistake, you had to start all over again. I was very fortunate many of the senior keepers who were very knowledgeable didn’t beat me up too much.” In particular, he found a strong mentor in Dennis Meritt. “Dennis was very big into if you learn something you should publish it,” he added. “We wrote a number of papers together.” Rosenthal later became Curator of Mammals.

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

During the bulk of Rosenthal’s time at the Lincoln Park Zoo, the director was the legendary Dr. Lester Fisher. “I was very fortunate to have Lester Fisher as director,” he stated. “He was not a micromanager but someone who allowed the curators and zoologists to define their own role. Nothing was super carved in stone. For example, I had a big interest early on in videotaping things at the zoo. We got a video tape camera that was reel to reel. No one said Mark you can’t do that. I was able to amass a very good pictorial history of things that happened at the zoo. One of the things I did for my master’s thesis was I worked with elephant shrews from Africa. No one said you can’t import this animal. I thought nobody had done much with elephant shrews in a management sense so I found a guy in Africa who was a trapper and he sent them to the Lincoln Park Zoo. They were wonderful animals.”

@ Mark Rosenthal

During much of his career the Lincoln Park Zoo imported and exported animals all the time, Mark Rosenthal acknowledged it is a good thing zoos usually no longer take animals from the wild. “There was big controversy about taking California condors and black-footed ferrets out of the wild since there were so few left but, because of zoos, they’re still around today,” he reflected. “There’s always potential exceptions but it’s very important for zoos to have self-sustaining populations and become more active as stewards of the wild. Ron Tilson from the Minnesota Zoo did an outstanding project where zoos adopted national parks in third world countries and gave a long-term commitment to assist them. Zoos should be one of the main proponents and players in helping animals in the wild, educating people about nature and making them better informed about what’s going on. The bottom line is if you care about something you’re going to want to save it, preserve it and know it’s always there and that’s the role zoos should continue to play.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

One positive change Rosenthal observed during his tenure was growing cooperation between zoos. “Zoos used to be quote on quote rivals in protecting their turf,” he remarked. “In the old days when Marlin Perkins was director of the Lincoln Park Zoo and Bob Bean was director of the Brookfield Zoo, there was a rivalry. “When Bean wanted a male gorilla to breed with his females, Marlin wouldn’t give up Bushman because then the Lincoln Park Zoo wouldn’t have a gorilla. When George Rabb and Lester Fishers were directors, there was a closer association between the staffs and the Chicago institute directors would have monthly dinners at the Lincoln Park Zoo, Brookfield Zoo or Shedd Aquarium. That was a very positive thing.” Now zoos work closely together to help save species and create positive welfare.

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

During Mark Rosenthal’s time at the Lincoln Park Zoo, many changes took place at the zoo. “When I started, we only had male keepers,” he remembered. “Only when we did the next civil service exam in the late 1970s or early 1980s did we have women keepers. The women who worked as zoo leaders in the Children’s Zoo finally got to be called keepers.” Many of the zoo’s historic buildings were redone. “The physical buildings were maintained but we remodeled them and I got to be involved with rebuilding a lot of the zoo,” Rosenthal said.

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

Mark Rosenthal was on the design team for the Lester E. Fisher Great Ape House, which opened in 1976. While it since has been replaced by the state-of-the-art Regenstein Center for African Apes, it was cutting edge when it opened. “The building came to be the way most of the new facilities came under Lester Fisher- he wanted to give the animals more space,” Rosenthal explained. “The zoo is locked into its acreage so Lester Fisher wanted to look at how we used all that space. The Primate House held not only the monkeys but the gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees and Les felt they needed a better management environment. Fisher and the architects visited zoos in Europe that had gorillas and came up with a concept of not only giving more space horizontally but also vertically. They also had seen many zoo buildings in various places that were monuments to the architects not the animals and they didn’t want to disrupt the landscape of Lincoln Park Zoo so they covered the building with soil and planting.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

In the new space, only gorillas had outdoor space. “Orangutans and chimpanzees were supposed to get outdoor space but cost was an issue,” Rosenthal elaborated. “The building had skylights unlike the old Monkey House. We designed the building inside so the gorilla family could go through transfer areas into the outside.” While the building hosted many births and innovations in husbandry, it was ultimately became dated and was replaced. “The look of the building inside was very modernistic,” Rosenthal recollected. “The trees were abstract trees- they didn’t look like trees but cement posts with baskets for gorillas to sleep in. I remember having this conversation with Terry Maple at one time. The building functioned well but it had hard cement floors. The zoo wanted to soften it up, which we had to do with new concepts of exthibtry with outdoor habitats and different kinds of substrate more in line with people’s perceptions of nature. To me, no building is more than a building. Your job as a zoo manager is to get the best exhibitry possible.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

In the early 1980s, much of the North Side of the Lincoln Park Zoo was demolished to build a new Large Mammal Area. It included a Large Mammal Building featuring African and Asian elephants, giraffes, pygmy hippos and black rhinos (since turned into the Regenstein African Journey) and the Wolf and Bear line featuring polar bears and a variety of other carnivores (since turned into Arctic Tundra for polar bears and Penguin Cove for African penguins.) “The philosophy was we won’t just have a postage stamp collection,” Rosenthal commented. “The Large Mammal Area had to take up a lot of space in a small footprint. We had never had rhinos or hippos so we got black rhinos and pygmy hippos.” Rosenthal was particularly interested with Andean bears. “I was International Studbook Keeper for spectacled (Andean) bears for many years and we sent bears to Venezuela for conservation,” he added.

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

While the zoo no longer houses elephants due to space issues, Mark Rosenthal clearly recalled the birth of an Asian elephant in 1990, the only elephant ever born in Chicago. “Lester [Fisher] wondered if there was any possibility of having reproduction with our elephants so we sent a female to Springfield, Missouri and when she came back pregnant we had the very first [and only] birth of an elephant at Lincoln Park Zoo,” he recalled. “That was a big deal. The only two times Lester Fisher micromanaged were with the birth of the elephant and when we brought koalas to the zoo. We kept him fully informed on everything with the elephant birth and he was vitally interested in that.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

The Lincoln Park Zoo became famous for its phenomenal breeding success with western lowland gorillas. “Lester Fisher was able to bring in a number of gorillas from the wild and those guys grew up in the old Primate House,” Rosenthal elaborated. “The first birth occurred there. When they moved to the new Ape House, we were very fortunate that many births occurred and they were all female babies. We had different males so we were able to develop different lineages with them. They were very prolific and sired many babies. One went to Howlett's Zoo Park [in England] and sired a lot of babies. In later years, we received gorillas back. We had three exhibits to place these gorillas troops. Disney approached us when they were building Animal Kingdom as they really badly wanted a family group to start with and, because of our success, we had a surplus troop. We worked out a deal where we sent a family troop to Disney and they started having babies a year after they got there.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

On top of that, the Lincoln Park Zoo was vital to developing procedures at how to manage gorillas that helped other zoos be successful at breeding them. “We used good management techniques,” Mark Rosenthal explained. “We did a video called “To Be a Gorilla,” which shows the techniques we used to be successful. For instance when a female doesn’t care for her baby how long should you wait to take it? We created a protocol and let others learn from our mistakes. As a young zoologist, I used to hang out with Frank the Gorilla and that was a wonderful perk of the job.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

The zoo was a pioneer in displaying great apes in proper social groups. “Part of the enrichment was the family unit- the male was in charge of his troop and the babies played with each other,” Rosenthal stated. “For the chimps, I had seen at a zoo in Tokyo an artificial termite mounds where the chimps would stick straws in and get bits of sweet tasting liquids similar to what Jane Goodall discussed in Tool Using. We did a model of what they had done and I worked with a candy company to develop a sticky liquid for chimpanzees that was sweet but didn’t get spoiled. The chimps took to that formal right away.” All of this knowledge was incorporated to maximize gorilla and chimpanzee welfare in the design of the Regenstein Center for African Apes, opened in 2004.

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

The Lincoln Park Zoo significantly grew its conservation, research and education efforts under the leadership of Lester Fisher. “You need someone there to be a champion to move things forward,” Mark Rosenthal reflected. “Lester Fisher hired the first education curator ever in the zoo’s history. He also build a very big docent volunteer program that was instrumental in educating people on the grounds. I ran the traveling zoo where zoologists would lecture at day camps and senior homes. If you had their attention, you could talk to them and that was a positive beginning to education.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

“Dennis Meritt had a great interest in armadillos, sloths and anteaters and published a lot of papers on them,” Rosenthal continued. “That was the beginning of true research at Lincoln Park Zoo. Through people he knew Dennis was able to assemble one of the first big groups of edentates assisted by the Scott Neotropical Fund, which helped fund conservation in the tropics. Of course, ultimately a curator of conservation was hired and they expanded the department to not only do fieldwork but epidemiology. Often when we got a curator they would continue to develop programs.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

In the 1992, Lester E. Fisher retired and, after thirteen months of directorship by David Hales, Assistant Director Kevin Bell was promoted to the directors seat. Around the same time, a major change occurred as Lincoln Park Zoo privatized, transitioning from a municipal institution to a public-private partnership run by the Lincoln Park Zoo Society. “The zoo society was started by Marlin Perkins and grew,” Rosenthal explained. “Ultimately the Friends of the Zoo was giving money not just to do capital projects but at one point was giving almost half of the zoo’s operating budget. They were becoming more than just friends of the zoo and the Chicago Park District and were really involved in all aspects of the zoo's operation. Mayor Daley decided he wanted to privatize items in the park district so they could focus more on recreation in the Chicago Park District. The Zoo Society took over management similar to Brookfield, who is managed by the Chicago Zoological Society.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

While the transition was an adjustment for staff, it ultimately worked out very well. “The good was while we were in the park district you always had a budget and never had to worry about getting your money,” Rosenthal elaborated. “The bad was when we were in the park district we were dependent on them for the budget. When the zoo privatized, it allowed the zoo to be the captain of its own fate. They could do as they wanted and be as wonderful as they dreamed. They had to raise the money but they did not have to ask the park district if they could build this building or send curators to this conference.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

Two of Mark Rosenthal’s main initiatives as Curator of Mammals were creating more opportunities for professional growth and involvement of his staff in improving animal management. “We always tried to get the keepers as much educational opportunities as we could- we’d send them to a workshop and get them additional professional growth,” he elaborated. “We certainly embraced the evolution of wanting to do animal management in a better way. I was always looking for new ways to do things and improve things. The keeper staff was always involved when we did a new building. You wanted their input as they were the people who took care of the animals. The staff was very open to making the changes and wanting to do more. We sent people to AZA school and workshops. When I left, the Mark Rosenthal Keeper Travel Fund was set up to give keepers opportunities to go get more educational growth.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

“I would always tell my keepers they have the ability to go from one to five, one being pushing the broom,” Rosenthal continued. “If you want to do more things, that’s open to you. Some keepers wanted to do more while others didn’t. If you don’t want to get more professional growth that’s okay but I expect you to be the best keepers pushing the broom and feeding the animals that you can be. You can push the envelope if you choose. If you want to do 6 or 7, you can’t do that- that’s my job as a curator. I felt that as an animal keeper, zoologist or curator you should be a 'student of the game.' By that I mean you need to understand your profession. That understanding involves reading a lot of literature. Knowing the literature of your profession and visiting other zoos to deepen your knowledge of management is so important."

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

Mark Rosenthal gave a particularly insightful example of what he looked for in a zookeeper. “We would have interviews and we had one young man who applied for a farm keeper position who was a groundskeeper at the zoo,” he recalled. “He hadn’t finished high school while other people who applied had a master’s. However, all the times I had seen this man he was always working. When the job selection committee said who do you want Mark, I said I want this guy who’s the groundskeeper since he’s a hardworking guy. He was the only guy who showed passion for wanting to do this job. I said I can teach him to be an animal keeper but I can’t teach him passion. He’s still there today. He isn’t going to write a scientific paper but he’s going to take care of those animals a lot better than other people. You sometimes need people who aren’t going to be curators but who are going to take care of the animals and do it well. Those people are the backbones of the zoo.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

Rosenthal’s last project at the zoo was Regenstein African Journey, a reimagining of the Large Mammal Building featuring a variety of environments from Africa. Animals featured included Baringo giraffes, black rhinoceros, pygmy hippos, colobus monkeys, warthogs, African wild dogs, meerkats, aardvarks, dwarf crocodiles and a variety of African birds. “The bottom line of African Journey was to tell the whole story of the ecology of a region,” Rosenthal said.

One of the biggest challenges of African Journey was moving many animals out before construction. “I’m proud to say my team, who had done months of operant conditioning training, made the largest move of animals in the history of the zoo and every animal got to where it was supposed to go,” Mark Rosenthal commented. “My team was trained and knew their jobs.”

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

The next challenge was acquiring the animals to live in the building. “Aardvarks were very expensive and it took me a dickens of a time to find a male aardvark,” Rosenthal recalled. “I really wanted ground hornbills- they’re wonderful animals but I couldn’t secure them.” In 2003, Mark Rosenthal retired from the Lincoln Park Zoo. “After 36 years working at the zoo, I wasn’t having as much fun and wanted to try some new things,” he said. Since that time, Rosenthal has begun the Zoo and Aquarium Video Archives, a collection of long video interviews with retired zoo veterans.It can be checked out at www.zooovideoarchive.org

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

@ Lincoln Park Zoo

Mark Rosenthal shared some thoughts on the future of zoos. “The saving grace for smaller zoos will be their relationship with the community,” he concluded. “If the community feels they are doing a good job, they will support their zoo. Gary Clarke, former director of the Topeka Zoo, is a perfect example. [Smaller zoos] have to earn that community support. For bigger zoos, they are starting to be facilitators of conservation. Through their education initiatives, they have to really foster this continued appreciation of the natural world. If you have a giraffe, you should have a program to help giraffes in the wild. If you learn to love something you want to preserve it for yourself, your kids and other people. the zoo is The place to educate people and give them the chance to appreciate the wild.”

@ Mark Rosenthal

#LincolnParkZoo

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