The bird man of Lincoln Park Zoo

October 15, 2012

Rick Kogan

 

Lincoln Park Zoo opens at 7 a.m.

By then, most of its animals have snorted, stretched, wiggled, flapped and, without benefit of any coffee, otherwise roused themselves for another day of exhibiting their easy wonder.

Kevin Bell, my guest later in the show, does have coffee in the morning: One cup; he needs it. He gets to the zoo at 6 a.m.., something he has done almost every day for nearly four decades, ever since he was 23 and came here from New York to become curator of birds—the youngest curator in the zoo's history.

Birds were the zoo’s first animals. They arrived in 1868, a pair of mute swans that were a gift from New York City's Central Park. They came by train; it took two days.

Many things have changed at the zoo during the last 144 years, but one wonderful thing has not: It's free, one of only three major U.S. zoos (the others are in Washington, D.C., and St. Louis) that charge no admission.

Those two swans soon multiplied to 13, and by 1874 the animal population swelled to 48 birds and 27 mammals. That year a bear was bought for $10 and the Lincoln Park Zoological Gardens was officially formed, making our zoo-though arguments come from Philadelphia—the first in the U.S.

It has grown—more animals, more land-over the years. But it has always bee—and remains—a special slice of the city.

A zoo, especially one as accessible and democratic as Lincoln Park's, sits in a pleasant spot in one's memory and provides a strong thread through one's life. It is a place where virtually every Chicago-area child is taken by his parents and where, in turn, these children take their children and their children and on and on through the generations.

It is an early morning last week. Outside, people stroll. Inside and outside, animals prowl. Lincoln Park Zoo shakes its furry, feathered self to life.

Kevin Bell is there, of course.

Bell says, "For a little while, my time is my own. This hour is mine, and I spend it with the birds.”

We are outside and a couple of tiny sparrows, prosaic city birds free to scurry about the trees above Bell's head, make some funny noise—you know, that chirping noise that always sounds happy. They fly off and Bell watches them, until they are but specks in the city sky.