From his first visit to the Central Park Zoo in New York City as a toddler, his Huckleberry Finn-like boyhood days on Long Island Sound and the eastern shore of Maryland, to his current day role as President and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society, Stuart was destined for a life and career connected to conservation.
Hinsdale Living sat down with Stuart to get a glimpse into the man and the legacy he continues to build.
Hinsdale Living: To what do you attribute your passion for nature and conservation?
Stuart Strahl: There is no short answer to that question. My brother and I spent our boyhood days playing in the spring-fed ponds near my home on Long Island Sound and in the nearby forest preserves. We boiled mussels we picked from the rocks and developed a growing fascination for frogs and birds. And I spent summers at my grandfather’s farm along Pickering Creek, near Easton, Maryland. I saw my first deer there, went “fossiling” in the mud flats, and experienced the magical, deafening chorus of tens of thousands of ducks and geese heralding the misty red dawn. I remember those things like they were yesterday.
My parents taught us America’s conservation heritage and appreciation in the natural wonders of our country. They took us on tours all over the lower 48 states, especially the parks of the west.
When you’re standing in on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon at sunset, seeing the majestic vistas of Glacier National Park and watching bison romping in the dawn of Yellowstone, you get a perspective for the grandeur of nature. And yet, we humans have a huge affect on the future of the planet, nature, and wildlife. I have always felt a responsibility to preserve it for my grandchildren and other people’s kids and grandkids.
HL: Can you point to any pivotal moments in your life and career that influenced the road you’ve traveled?
SS: When I was 10, Dr. William G. Conway, the very young Director of the Bronx Zoo at that time, moved in next door to us in Pelham Manor, New York. He saw me out birding with my dad’s army surplus binoculars, and he didn’t have any children. He’d come back from trips around the world and show my brother and me slides of the Serengeti plains of Africa, penguins in the Antarctic, or orcas chasing sea lions off a Patagonian beach. I was enthralled, and my world opened up.
As a high school senior, as I drove into Lewiston, Maine, to visit Bates College, I noticed the stinking Androscoggin River with five feet of purple suds bubbling on the surface. When I met with the Dean of Students that day, I asked him, “Does this school have a social conscience?” which is probably the reason I got into Bates, because my high school grades were less than excellent.
At that time, though, there was a science-based movement to conserve wildlife and clean up pollution, which later resulted in the Endangered Species, Clean Air, and Clean Water Acts that saved Peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and California condors from extinction. The Androscoggin is now a National Wild and Scenic River. Things were so bad in the ‘60s that the national movement was not just made up of environmentalists, but hunters, farmers, and a progressive coalition of people, including me.
These are just a few of the many pivotal experiences I’ve had, which of course led to my professional career in conservation in Latin America, Florida, and now here in Chicago.
HL: You are credited with leading the National Audubon Society into national prominence with the largest ecosystem restoration in history—the Florida Everglades restoration. Tell us about your role.
SS: It wasn’t me, but we. There were many heroes in the Everglades project. I’ve always felt that it is critical to collaborate and include people in the discussion about conservation if we are to succeed. It was really a broad-based effort that we brought together—a coalition of business people, scientists, public agencies, and other interest groups. This helped us to develop an expanded public awareness of the benefits of restoration.
We used objective science to validate the seriousness of the Everglades crisis and consequent economic impacts, and we used economic revitalization to appeal to people’s understanding that water supply, eco-tourism, and sustainability were vital to their economy and quality of life. In the seven and a half years I was involved, we grew and merged all National Audubon Society programs within Florida around these concepts, and we helped pass federal and state bills to restore the Everglades, which will exceed $20 billion in funding when complete.
HL: Why did you and your family choose to live in Clarendon Hills in 2003 when you accepted the position at the Chicago Zoological Society (CZS)?
SS: Education was very important to my wife Melissa and me. Two of our three daughters have dyslexia, so we wanted to find the best schools. Hinsdale Central was way up there on a national scale.
Clarendon Hills and Hinsdale also reminded me of the Pelham Manor of my youth. It is an environment where people know each other and have very strong cultural ethics of philanthropy, community service, and community engagement. We have wonderful natural spaces nearby such as Waterfall Glen and the entire Salt Creek corridor to engage in outdoor nature activities.
HL: The Chicago Zoological Society operates the Brookfield Zoo, but it also does important work that significantly influences conservation globally. Can you tell us about that aspect of CZS?
SS: CZS has always put people in the equation for conservation both here in Chicagoland and around the world. We also have
a strong reputation in the broader community as an innovator in science education. Our institutional strengths include supporting and training conservation leaders and improving standards of animal care and welfare.
Of course, our main activities revolve around our 77 years of growing and improving our guest experience at the 216-acre Brookfield Zoo, in partnership with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. CZS has evolved the Zoo into a Center for Conservation Leadership, focused on connecting people with wildlife and nature through family fun and educational opportunities.
We hope to inspire our guests toward conservation leadership and action.
The bottom line here is that the vast majority of Americans care about animals and believes in conservation. They, like me, want to do right for future generations. At CZS, we operate in the spirit of collaboration and believe in the power of people’s ability to transform our common future.
We have plenty of work to do here, and if I could define my dream job, I’m in it right now at CZS.
—Words by Elaine Doremus Slayton