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Brookfield Zoo chief heads for the exits
Stuart Strahl plans to resign after 17 years leading the 86-year-old organization, which is facing fiscal challenges.

Thursday, February 06, 2020
Crain's Chicago Business
by Steven R. Strahler

February 06, 2020 02:24 PM

Brookfield Zoo chief heads for the exits

Stuart Strahl plans to resign after 17 years leading the 86-year-old organization, which is facing fiscal challenges.

Steven R. Strahler

 

Stuart Strahl

Brookfield Zoo's chief Stuart Strahl plans to resign after 17 years, he told its board of trustees.

A spokeswoman said no departure date has been set, and a search firm hasn't been hired.

Strahl is 64. His pending departure as CEO of the zoo's parent will add to the list of prestigious Chicago nonprofits looking for new leaders, among them the Museum of Science & Industry, the Field Museum and the Economic Club of Chicago.

In an interview, Strahl characterized his decision as a retirement, saying he wants to spend more time on grizzly bear and other

 

Brookfield Zoo's chief Stuart Strahl plans to resign after 17 years, he told its board of trustees.

A spokeswoman said no departure date has been set, and a search firm hasn't been hired.

Strahl is 64. His pending departure as CEO of the zoo's parent will add to the list of prestigious Chicago nonprofits looking for new leaders, among them the Museum of Science & Industry, the Field Museum and the Economic Club of Chicago.

In an interview, Strahl characterized his decision as a retirement, saying he wants to spend more time on grizzly bear and other conservation issues in Montana, where he has a cabin. The timing will depend on when a successor gets up to speed, he said.

"I haven't had a good day of bird-watching in a long time," said the one-time field biologist. "I never thought I'd run a zoo."

During his tenure, Strahl, an alum of the Wildlife Conservatory and the Audubon Foundation, has confronted fiscal challenges, resulting in belt-tightening, layoffs and escalating admission prices at the 86-year-old zoo in the western suburb. Just yesterday it outsourced food and other guest services, he said, trimming full-time employment to 360 from 430.

Attendance has slipped in recent years, though it improved last year to just under 2 million visitors, compared with 2.2 million in 2017 and higher figures earlier. In contrast, Strahl said family memberships have more than doubled, to 115,000, during his stint.

The Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield's manager, reported a $4.5 million deficit in 2018 on a 9 percent decline in revenue, to $68.9 million, according to the most recent IRS filings. Revenue for the previous year exceeded expenses by $2.38 million after a deficit in 2016 of $8.26 million.

Besides attendance, the zoo depends on declining subsidies from the Cook County Forest Preserve District, which owns the 216-acre site. Overall contributions and grants fell in 2018 by nearly 8 percent, to $36.7 million, while program revenue was steady at $22.6 million, according to the financial filings. Strahl's compensation in 2018 was $592,000.

"The problem is, the forest preserves have their own issues—that just seems to be part of the mix at every level of government," Strahl said.

 

Brookfield has raised entrance fees when there are none at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Brookfield's admission is $24.95 for adults, $19.95 for seniors and $17.95 for children (with dollar discounts in each category for online orders). Admission is free, though, four days of each week in January and February.

Strahl, who has a doctorate in biology, was previously CEO of Audubon of Florida, where he navigated the political thicket of Everglades conservation and restoration. Earlier, he was the director of Latin American Programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

When he took the Brookfield job in 2003, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel said the native of suburban New York City was a teenage volunteer at the Bronx Zoo, "where he cleaned bird cages, lectured visitors and drove a tour train."

A 2010 Crain's story said Strahl and his family ate mostly wild game for nutritional and environmental reasons. At the time, Brookfield, along with Lincoln Park Zoo, was criticized for a spate of animal deaths. Two elephants, two dolphins, two giraffes and a tiger cub had died at Brookfield over an 18-month period. While he and other employees felt “grief,” Crain's said, Mr. Strahl was matter-of-fact about the deaths: “The mortality rate in zoos is 100 percent, just like in humans."

 



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