George Rabb, former Illinois State Museum Board Member

Steve Johnson, Contact Reporter-Chicago Tribune

July 28, 2017

George Rabb, the influential longtime director of Brookfield Zoo and one of the first American zoo professionals to hold a Ph.D., died Thursday after a brief illness, the zoo announced. He was 87.

In nearly five decades at Brookfield, Rabb earned a reputation as a forward thinker, pushing zoos toward a conservation mission and helping to lead a movement toward more naturalistic animal habitats.

“Dr. George Rabb leaves a deep legacy and lasting impact on the zoo world and the field of conservation. He will be best remembered for his caring ethic; his deep concern and advocacy for animals, people, and the environment; and his unwavering energy and commitment to making a difference for the natural world,” Stuart Strahl, Ph.D., President and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society, which manages the zoo, said in a statement.

Rabb, who lived for decades in a home on zoo grounds, was not widely known to the general public in Chicago, however.

“He has always avoided the limelight but is known as a warm and wise animal expert,” said a Tribune article in 1996. “He recently retired from the chairmanship of the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN-World Conservation Union, the leading scientific group that monitors the status of wildlife and advises world governments. Rabb's work added luster to an international reputation, yet he largely remains anonymous in his hometown.”

His passion about conservation came through in that Tribune interview. “That is the most tragic part, the loss of biodiversity,” he said. “We're bloody ignorant. The notion that we're sort of stirring ourselves to have expeditions to Mars when we really don't know what's on this planet to sustain us. The yew was a trash tree until we discovered its potency in fighting breast and uterine cancer.”

A herpetologist by training, Rabb joined the zoo in 1956 and retired in 2004 after having served 28 years as director and guiding the institution, in West Suburban Brookfield, out of tough times.

“The zoo struggled with deficits and a declining physical plant through much of the 1960s,” says the Encyclopedia of Chicago. “Then, helped by a large bond issue from the Forest Preserve District, close attention to zoo governance and visitor services, and Rabb's appointment as director in 1976, the zoo began to recreate itself as one of the nation's best, especially in its institutional commitment to international conservation and environmental awareness.”

Rabb’s undergraduate degree, in biology, was from the College of Charleston, and he earned his doctorate at the University of Michigan. After his retirement, he became president emeritus and stayed active in conservation issues and in nonprofit governance in the Chicago area. In his career he won most of the top honors available to zoo professionals and was widely respected in his field.

“His impact is far-reaching and can best be measured by his lifetime of accomplishments, the thousands of individuals he inspired to pursue conservation careers,” Strahl said.

Rabb had been married to the late Mary Rabb, a fellow College of Charleston graduate who ran the zoo’s library and worked with him on conservation issues, especially regarding amphibians. Scientists named a species of frog discovered in 2005 after the Rabbs, the zoo said. Mrs. Rabb died in 2006.