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George Rabb (1930 - 2017)

Courtesy of Chicago Zoological Society

George Rabb (1930 - 2017)

George Rabb, a former director of the Chicago-area Brookfield Zoo, died Thursday, July 27, 2017, after a brief illness, according to a news statement released by the zoo. He was 87.

Rabb was influential internationally in the conservation movement and in the transition of zoos toward exhibiting animals in more natural habitats and becoming centers of scientific research.

He joined the Brookfield Zoo, in suburban Chicago, in 1956. Trained in herpetology, the study of reptiles, he made the welfare of the animals a top priority. He became the director in 1976.


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Rabb had a vision for zoos that was one of immersion, not only for the visitors but also for the animals. As director of the zoo, he oversaw the creation of natural habitat exhibits like Tropic World, a rainforest enclosure housing animals from three continents.

At the time of its opening in the 1980s, it was the largest enclosure of its kind in the world.

“A lot of the things that he started here were the first in the field: the first zoo nutrition lab for animals, the first behavior endocrinology testing for stress levels in animals, good and bad, the first family play zoo anywhere ever,” his successor, Stuart Strahl, president and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society, told the Chicago Tribune after Rabb’s death.

He was at the forefront of the international conservation movement. He made Brookfield Zoo a conservation center and participated in programs for scientists to study animals in their native habitats around the world.

He wrote about the declining worldwide population of amphibians, raising global awareness among colleagues and the public. He saw threats to biodiversity as a loss of not only organisms and general scientific knowledge but also of potential practical benefits for humanity.

“The yew was a trash tree until we discovered its potency in fighting breast and uterine cancer,” he told the Chicago Tribune in a 1996 interview.

After retiring from the zoo in 2004, he became president emeritus. Over his career, he accumulated many professional honors including the 1997 silver medal of the Zoological Society of London. In 2008, he received the lifetime achievement award from the National Conference on Science, Policy, and the Environment.

Rabb was preceded in death by his wife, the former Mary Sughrue, in 2006. The couple had no children, but scientists named a frog species after the Rabbs in 2005.

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