Ailing centuries-old tree cut down at Lincoln Park Zoo

The first signs the tree’s days were numbered appeared in the summer of 2021 when it prematurely dropped its leaves.

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A dying bur oak tree, believed to be 250 to 300 years old, is removed from Lincoln Park Zoo, Tuesday, May 2, 2023.

A dying bur oak tree, believed to be 250 to 300 years old, was removed from Lincoln Park Zoo o Tuesday.

Courtney Kueppers/WBEZ

Chainsaws revved Tuesday morning and removed a nearly 300-year-old tree at Lincoln Park Zoo. What stood for centuries was cut down in hours.

The 70-foot-tall bur oak, next to the primate house, is believed to be older than the city of Chicago itself. The base of the trunk alone weighed a hefty 7,400 pounds, and scientists will now be able to get a precise age by counting the rings.

The long-sturdy tree had grown old and weak in its final months, and the sawed-off dead branches creaked as a crane placed them on the ground.

Kim Raymond, who has volunteered at the zoo for more than two decades, looked on from behind caution tape.

“I’ve kind of known this tree for a long time,” she said. “It was just always there, so it’s going to be sad.”

Katrina Quint, Lincoln Park Zoo’s director of horticulture, holds the name plaque that was on a dying bur oak tree removed from the zoo, Tuesday, May 2, 2023.

Katrina Quint, Lincoln Park Zoo’s director of horticulture, holds the name plaque that was on a dying bur oak tree cut down Tuesday.

Courtney Kueppers/WBEZ

Raymond and fellow veteran volunteer Theresa Pasquarella were among a small group who watched the tree come down. Pasquarella called the tree a landmark and a meeting place where groups often gathered.

“This is a life cycle,” said Pasquarella, whose eyes were fixed on the tree as it was cut down. “Probably a lot of trees around here that sprung from this tree.”

The first signs the tree’s days were numbered appeared in the summer of 2021 when it prematurely dropped its leaves. That worried Katrina Quint, the zoo’s director of horticulture. Along with outside partners, Quint and her team attempted to reinvigorate the tree with air spading — a process that resembles power washing, but with air instead of water. The hope is that by adding oxygen into the soil, it would increase the tree’s water and nutrient intake.

“Unfortunately, we were a little bit too late in those efforts,” Quint said.

A dying bur oak tree, believed to be 250 to 300 years old, is removed from Lincoln Park Zoo Tuesday, May 2, 2023.

A dying bur oak tree, believed to be 250 to 300 years old, is removed from Lincoln Park Zoo on Tuesday.

Courtney Kueppers/WBEZ

Last summer, the writing was on the wall when the tree again shed its foliage early. In November, the zoo announced the sprawling tree would be removed, citing safety concerns. The tree’s big branches stretch out over sidewalks often busy with some of the 2 million annual zoo visitors.

In the months since the zoo announced the tree would be cut down, there has been an outpouring of love for the gnarled, twisty tree. On zoo grounds, staff members have been accustomed to pointing visitors in the direction of the old oak. Quint quipped that it has become the most common question after “Where’s the bathroom?”

“I feel like we’ve all been commiserating together about the loss of such a beautiful tree,” Quint said. “It’s not an easy thing for us to do, and it wasn’t an easy decision.”

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