Syracuse University Magazine


Kevin Bell '74

Zoo Life

Kevin J. Bell grew up with a playground outside his front door that most kids can imagine only in their wildest dreams. He was free to roam 250 acres filled with exotic species from around the globe. This wild kingdom of a playground? The Bronx Zoo. “Our house was right behind the reptile house,” says Bell, who was 5 years old when his family moved to the zoo, where his father, Joseph, was curator of birds. “Whether I went to school or out on a date, you had to drive through the zoo to get to the gate. It wasn’t like you could walk out the door and catch a bus.”

The playground came with a price, one Bell happily paid. “When I came home from school, my dad had a long list of chores and responsibilities for me every day,” he says. “I had to go to the bird house and turn the eggs in the incubator or take care of a sick animal. It was work I was doing at a pretty early age. I wasn’t getting paid for it, but I loved it. It was fun.”

Those were formative experiences, and today Bell is one of the most renowned zoo men in the world. After working at the Bronx Zoo for two summers following graduation from SU, where he majored in biology, Bell left in 1976 to become, at age 23, the youngest bird curator ever at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. In 1993, he was named the zoo’s director and in 1995, its president and CEO. Last October, he was elected to the council of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, where he helps lead strategic efforts to build the world’s largest conservation movement.

On a smaller scale, Bell has been doing that and more during his tenure at the 35-acre Lincoln Park Zoo, which exhibits upwards of 1,200 animals while promoting conservation science, quality animal care, and educational outreach. The last two capital campaigns Bell headed raised more than $175 million, and he has guided the renovation and construction of new exhibits that have completely transformed the zoo. “I’m not working in the zoo like I used to, hands-on every day with animals,” Bell says. “My job now entails more fund raising and visionary leadership for the institution.” He pauses, then says with a laugh: “The great thing is, if I get frustrated working with people, I can go spend time with the animals.”

When Bell arrived at SU, he considered himself one of those fortunate first-year students who knew exactly what he would do after graduation. “There was never any question,” he says. SU, though, proved as valuable to Bell’s personal development as his childhood days at the Bronx Zoo. “It was the first time I was in a totally new environment,” says Bell, the father of two boys, ages 9 and 11. “When I was at the zoo, other than my classmates, I was more friends with the animals. Syracuse put me in a different situation—being away from home, having a roommate, socializing. It was more of a growing-up time for me and realizing the next stage of my life was happening at Syracuse.”

Although he has put down roots in Chicago, Bell maintains strong ties to SU. He is a member the Board of Visitors of the College of Arts and Sciences and the SU Chicago Regional Council, for which he has hosted functions at the zoo. “With the College of Arts and Sciences, we’re involved in fund raising, for example, for the Life Sciences building that opened in 2008,” Bell says. “We also support Dean George Langford in recommendations he makes to the SU Board of Trustees for initiatives within the college.”

First and foremost, though, Bell is an animal man, and always will be. Life in a zoo, as he says, “is about as good as it gets.”  —Dave Wieczorek