Dr. Lester Fisher, former director of Lincoln Park Zoo, dead at 100
Fisher worked at Lincoln Park Zoo for nearly 45 years, starting in 1947 and later serving as the zoo’s director from 1962 until he retired in 1992. He was the zoo’s first veterinarian.
Dr. Lester Fisher, the former director of Lincoln Park Zoo who helped transform the once aging facility into a renowned institution centered around education and animal welfare, has died.
He was 100 years old.
Lincoln Park president and CEO Kevin Bell was hired by Fisher in 1976 and has served as the zoo’s CEO and president for the past 26 years. Bell, who described Fisher as a mentor and a friend, plans to step down in January.
“A big piece of my heart is lost. Les transformed ‘the old zoo’ into a leader internationally in both exhibits and programs,” Bell said Thursday. “He was so beloved by every zoo director from all parts of the world, and in Chicago, he was a bit of a rock star. Walking around the zoo with him meant stopping constantly to sign autographs.”
Fisher “laid the foundation for the institution Lincoln Park Zoo is today,” said C. John Mostofi, chairman of the zoo’s board of trustees. “Dr. Fisher transformed the zoo from an old-fashioned facility into a center of care and conservation. He built the first Great Ape House, with exhibits designed to mimic natural habitats, and today his name graces the Dr. Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, one of the world’s leading ape behavior and science centers.”
Fisher worked at Lincoln Park Zoo nearly 45 years, starting in 1947 and later serving as the zoo’s director from 1962 until he retired in 1992. He was the zoo’s first veterinarian.
Fisher is credited with transforming the zoo into a state-of-the-art institution by renovating animal buildings and habitats, improving education around the animals and increasing conservation efforts.
He had a particular affinity for gorillas, which he spent time studying in Africa. In 1976, the zoo opened the Lester E. Fisher Great Ape House, where it continues to work with lowland gorillas. Under Fisher’s leadership, Lincoln Park Zoo “was home to the largest gorilla population in North America.”
The Great Ape House was replaced by the Regenstein Center for African Apes in 2004. A spokesperson said “thanks to Dr. Fisher’s initial efforts” the zoo’s ape facility “remains one of the best of its kind and is known worldwide.”
Fisher “also built the first farm with domesticated animals in a zoo in the country, bringing agriculture to a large urban population. Farm-in-the-Zoo is still beloved by adult Chicagoans and youngsters alike.”
Fisher’s work made him well-known beyond the zoo, especially through his appearances on on the “Ark in the Park,” a segment during the Ray Rayner and His Friends morning show on WGN-TV.
“We are deeply saddened at the passing of the legendary Dr. Lester Fisher, who graced our airwaves on his own weekly series ‘Ark In the Park’ starting in 1968,” a WGN-TV spokesperson said in a statement. “Dr. Fisher will be remembered for his kindness and enormous contributions and will be greatly missed.”
During those segments, Fisher would walk viewers through what was new at Lincoln Park Zoo, show off various animals and teach about each animal’s natural habitat. He also would bring animals — like a baby chimp and sugar glider — to another Chicago staple, The Bozo Show.
“Under his 30-year tenure, Fisher emphasized the importance of educating the public about the role zoos serve in society as conservation powerhouses,” the zoo said in a statement. “Visiting the zoo became an educational journey.”
Before working at the zoo, Fisher served in the Army during World War II, where he cared for 5,000 messenger pigeons and also kept an eye on General George Patton’s bulldog “Willie,” according to the zoo.
Fisher also encouraged animal care staff to further their education and brought in experts to conduct staff training.
Despite Fisher’s being well past his leadership role with the zoo, he remained involved as recently as this month, providing guidance to both Bell and Megan Ross, who is taking over as CEO and president.
“I will be forever grateful to him for meeting with me and Kevin as three generations of zoo directors, sharing his insights on the thrills and challenges of running an institution with animals in our care, and just sharing his stories from the ’60s and ’70s at Lincoln Park Zoo,” Ross said.