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Lincoln Park Zoo names its first female president, CEO in its 153-year history

Megan Ross — a “science nerd” who likes Marvel superheroes and lying in her backyard hammock — is uniquely qualified to show people the zoo as she see it: “a magical place.”

New Lincoln Park Zoo president and CEO Megan Ross poses for portrait at Lincoln Park, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
New Lincoln Park Zoo president and CEO Megan Ross
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Growing up in Atlanta, Megan Ross spent every spare moment climbing trees, looking under rocks and observing creatures in the pond down the street from her home.

Winter visits to her grandparents’ place in New Hampshire meant hours staring out a window at a busy bird feeder and snowshoeing to a nearby beaver lodge.

The experiences set Ross on a path that reached new heights Wednesday when Lincoln Park Zoo announced she will become its next president and chief executive officer.

The appointment marks two firsts in the zoo’s 153-year history: first female to lead the zoo and first scientist in that role.

“When I think about being the first woman scientist leader at the zoo, what I think about is perhaps some young kids out there might realize if you love animals there’s lots of different career paths. Not all of them are being a veterinarian. You can do lots of different things such as what I did, which was study animal behavior,” Ross told the Chicago Sun-Times.

But there’s another level of importance, she acknowledged.

“The zoo field, in general, has a large percentage of women in it,” Ross said. “For example, at Lincoln Park Zoo, I think we’re 68% female, and so when you’re in an industry or a field where there’s a lot of female representation, I would have expected there would be more female representation in the highest levels of zoos and aquariums. And there are many women who are leaders of zoos and aquariums, but I would say it’s certainly not reflective of how many women are actually in the field. I think we still have a little bit of a ways to go there.”

Ross, who currently runs day-to-day operations at the zoo, officially takes the reins Jan. 1 from her longtime mentor, Kevin Bell, who’s 69 and plans to retire.

Bell’s departure will be a loss. He’s been with Lincoln Park Zoo for 45 years. Having basically grown up on the grounds of the Bronx Zoo, where his father worked, Bell knows the job in a way few others can.

But Bell has no doubt that Ross, right out of the gate, will be better at the job than he was when he took over in 1995.

Kevin Bell, who is retiring as Lincoln Park Zoo president and CEO
Kevin Bell
Lincoln Park Zoo

The Lincoln Park Zoological Society, the nonprofit that runs the free zoo, considered a national search for a new leader but concluded it wasn’t necessary.

“We knew we couldn’t get anyone better,” Bell said. “She is a science nerd but has the capability of talking to non-scientists. And the tough thing for any head of a nonprofit is, you have to be able to relate well to donors, and she’s got the personality that will do that very well.”

C. John Mostofi, board chairman of the society, said “We couldn’t be more proud of the selection.”

Ross received her doctorate from the Georgia Institute of Technology after conducting a study on the effects of ultraviolet light on bird behavior (birds see ultraviolet light as a fourth primary color that humans do not).

She got her “dream job” in 2000 as Lincoln Park Zoo’s curator of birds and soon after had an “Aha!” moment while listening to animal keepers argue about penguin aggression and whether extra rocks should be added to the habitat when it was not breeding season.

“You know, we could study that,” Ross told the keepers. “We could collect data when they don’t have the rocks and when they do have the rocks and see if there’s more aggression,” she said. “And it was that moment that really made me feel like I had a lot to offer Lincoln Park Zoo and the zoo community in how I was approaching how we cared for animals.”

Ross, 47, lives in Evanston with her husband, Steve; their 14-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son; and two dogs.

Steve Ross is a primatologist who oversees Lincoln Park Zoo’s conservation work and research concerning chimpanzees and gorillas.

“He’s very interested in how animals are similar to humans, and I’m very interested in how animals are so different from us,” Megan Ross said.

Her other interests include reading (currently a murder mystery novel), hiking, lying in a hammock in her yard, needlepoint and watching Marvel superhero shows with her family.

As for Bell, he’s going to take an “honest-to-goodness vacation” after he retires.

Much of his previous travel consisted of going on safari with zoo donors.

“It’s been a great life,” he said.