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Lincoln Park Zoo's General Curator Celebrates 25 Years of Animal Care

 Dave Bernier is Lincoln Park Zoo's general curator. He has worked at the zoo since 1989.
Dave Bernier is Lincoln Park Zoo's general curator. He has worked at the zoo since 1989.
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Lincoln Park Zoo

LINCOLN PARK — Dave Bernier's glad he ditched a day of school 25 years ago.

The only time the Portage Park native ever cut class was while he was a junior at North Park University. The reason was to apply for a seasonal zookeeper job at Lincoln Park Zoo.

He was hired for the position, overseeing the Children Zoo's rabbits, ferrets, Guinea pigs and porcupines. And Bernier's still there a quarter-century later, having climbed the ladder to his current role of general curator.

Justin Breen introduces Lincoln Park's zookeeper of 25 years:

The top zookeeper at Lincoln Park Zoo for the past three years, Bernier is responsible for 70-plus employees who are being recognized during the current National Zookeeper Week. He also is co-chairman of the zoo's safety committee and leads safety drills.

"My role has shifted from individual animal care to the care of people in charge of the animals," said Bernier, a Luther North High School graduate. "This is a dedicated group of people that spend their lives caring for animals. Most of these folks, they can't wait to come to work."

Bernier has been a fan of the free zoo since he was old enough to take a bus there from the Northwest Side. The 45-year-old has been a zoo employee for more than half his life, and in that time has been married to his wife, Cheri, for 15 years, and witnessed the birth of his two children: Zach, 13, and Kira, 9.

Bernier has managed small and large mammals, reptiles, birds and every animal in between at the zoo.

“Dave epitomizes everything Lincoln Park Zoo stands for — commitment to our animals, dedication to conservation and exhibiting leadership to the zoo community both locally and nationally," Lincoln Park Zoo President and CEO Kevin Bell said in an email. "We’re honored to have staff who dedicate their entire lives to connecting people with nature and we celebrate with them as they reach milestones such as Dave’s 25 years.”

Bernier said Keo the chimpanzee, who died last year at age 55, was one of the animals that has stood out during his tenure. Bernier trained Keo when he first started at the zoo and then again about 10 years later.

"We always got along really well after a bumpy beginning," said Bernier, who taught Keo hand commands and cues that instructed Keo things like opening his mouth and shifting his position away from other chimps.

"We'd train him to come to me wherever I was," Bernier said. "He was a very playful guy."

Bernier, whose first day as a zookeeper was June 13, 1989, said he never plans to leave the zoo.

The next promotion would to become the vice president of animal care, but Bernier is more than happy in his current role.

"There's a lot to do in this position," Bernier said. "It was a tough decision to make, but I have to say I really enjoy the people management part of it. I like being on teams and promoting a team atmosphere, and I've been able to foster that environment here."

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