New view of the zoo: Brookfield's leader bringing a veterinarian's touch to renovation plans
Treating a sinus infection is no small feat when your patient is a 2,300-pound rhino.
During his veterinary career, Dr. Mike Adkesson and an army of specialists orchestrated the first CT scan ever done on an adult rhinoceros to find the source of the infection -- a molar -- in Layla, one of his most challenging cases at Brookfield Zoo.
The size of other patients made even routine checkups a huge undertaking. Adkesson and his team used what might be the biggest gurney you've ever seen to wheel Hudson the polar bear into the zoo's animal hospital for an exam.
For the most part, Adkesson no longer wears his scrubs and stethoscope around giants of the animal kingdom. But he's still taking on a monumental job in his new role: shaping the zoo of the future.
As the institution approaches its 100th anniversary in 2034, zoo leaders have been laying the groundwork for a major redesign to coincide with the centennial celebration. In the first project to kick off a capital campaign, the zoo plans to build outdoor primate habitats for Brookfield's western lowland gorillas and orangutans on the north side of Tropic World, a tricontinental exhibit housed in a cavernous building.
"Tropic World was state-of-the-art when it opened 40 years ago," said Adkesson, now the president and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society, the nonprofit that operates Brookfield. "It is a fantastic exhibit from a guest point of view, in terms of the size and the ability to see animals in a sort of artificial rainforest setting, but from the animal point of view, it's just not how we feel those animals are best kept today."
By early next year, Adkesson hopes to unveil a master plan for the development of animal enclosures, visitor amenities and infrastructure over the next decade. In the northwest section of a re-imagined zoo, ostriches, antelope and zebra would roam around new savanna landscapes re-creating the grasslands of Africa. Zoo officials also are looking at new rhino habitats.
"We'd love to bring Nile hippo back in an underwater viewing experience," Adkesson said.
He's spent 14 years of his professional life at Brookfield. And while he felt ready to "hit the ground running" when he took the helm six months ago, the CEO job took a little getting used to.
"It's definitely been one of the biggest adjustments for me in the new position, just not necessarily having my hands on an animal every day," he said. "But I love what I'm doing. And I am able to make a difference on a different scale and in a different way."
Indah swings arm to arm, branch to branch, with grace and ease in the synthetic trees of Tropic World. Unprompted, Adkesson identifies the white-cheeked gibbon by her Indonesian name.
"The ability to jump from one branch to the next and never miss anything is incredible, and their eyesight and hand-eye coordination is phenomenal," Adkesson said.
Indah's environment in Tropic World opened in the 1980s, complete with thunderstorm sound effects, a balmy air temperature and a meandering path through simulated rainforests home to primates found in South America, Asia and Africa.
"It's a great space for a lot of the smaller monkeys," Adkesson said. "It's a huge area for them to be able to move around. And it's dynamic. It's got great height, great climbing areas for them."
But for their human caretakers and maintenance workers, it's difficult to access exhibit areas. And in the four decades since Tropic World debuted, the medical care of great apes in zoological settings has grown by leaps and bounds.
The design of modern exhibits and holding spaces would take those advancements into account.
"Now, we're doing routine blood pressure monitoring, routine cardiac ultrasound examinations to monitor heart health. Cardiac disease is a big issue in older gorillas," Adkesson said. "But by monitoring those things, we can catch problems earlier, we can get animals on medication, and we can keep them healthier."
Brookfield has seven western lowland gorillas, a critically endangered species in the wild.
"We're one of the last zoos to have gorillas inside and not have an outdoor habitat, and that's not something we're proud of," Adkesson said. "We don't want to be the last zoo with them inside. We want to be back in front and want to be a leader and want to be proud of our habitat."
The outdoor primate habitats would run along the West Mall, a grass quad adjacent to Tropic World. Brookfield's two orangutan groups would switch between the outdoor and indoor spaces in Tropic World, a change of scenery that would further stimulate them, Adkesson said.
The largest of the great apes, gorillas would stay outdoors except during cold snaps. The zoo would look to repurpose the gorilla lair in Tropic World, either for additional small African monkeys or some other species altogether.
"We want them to feel the grass under their feet, the sunlight on their face," Adkesson said of the gorilla troop. "Their welfare is good. We know they're healthy. We feel they're happy. We know they're comfortable, but we also feel we can do better, and we just are constantly trying to raise that bar in terms of the care and the welfare that we provide."
Connecting up close
From their vantage point at tree canopy height, Tropic World visitors peer into a pit when monkeys scurry across the floor.
Most modern exhibits, Adkesson said, have gravitated away from looking down at animals. Large viewing windows, by contrast, could let visitors come "nose to nose" with primates in their outdoor domain.
"I've seen incredibly powerful moments with people at other zoos, with kids standing there looking at a 2-year-old gorilla that's the same size as they are, eye to eye through a window," Adkesson said. "And those connections just really can't be replicated, so that's what we're going for."
Those connections matter as Brookfield spreads a conservation message in ways that resonate with zoo audiences and inspires them to protect wild places. Adkesson is well-qualified to tell that story.
For more than a decade, the University of Illinois grad, other Brookfield veterinarians and marine biologists have studied the population health of Humboldt penguins, fur seals and sea lions along the rocky coastline of Peru. Those species face similar threats from overfishing and human disturbance.
"We've expanded from just health-focused work to everything from foraging ecology to satellite tracking of animals to ocean use and fisheries interactions, environmental contaminants, really just all aspects of a full, robust conservation program," Adkesson said.
He originally intended to make a one-time trip to Peru to collect blood samples and track infectious diseases in the penguins. Instead, he "fell in love" with the site in Punta San Juan and "never looked back."
The same can be said of his work in zoos. Growing up in Decatur, his mom, a librarian, signed him up for a youth program at Scovill Zoo at 8 years old.
Adkesson has every "quality you want in a zookeeper," said Cherryl Thomas, chair of the Chicago Zoological Society board of trustees.
"What has impressed me most? His intellect, compassion and sunny disposition," Thomas said.
Zoo officials have not announced a fundraising goal for the building projects.
"The master plan will update and enhance an already world-class zoo. The vision and the plans will be transformative," Thomas said.
Situated on 235 acres of Cook County Forest Preserve land, a sprawling campus best seen with a map and sturdy walking shoes, the zoo has the room to grow. Around 2 million visitors streamed through the gates each year before the pandemic.
"We've talked about a 4D theater opportunity, items that are exciting to our guests but are not obtrusive to the experience," Adkesson said.
Leading the zoo's evolution, Adkesson won't completely let go of his old job heading the vet department. "We made a deal that I can still come by here and there and get my hands dirty a little bit," he said.
He's found time to pop in on a few exams of Layla. The eastern black rhinoceros, a species driven to the brink of extinction by poaching and native habitat loss, reached a milestone as Adkesson realized his career dream.
Layla turned 11 three days after he became CEO.