| REAL LIFE: Dr. Mike Adkesson |

Living a Childhood Dream


Dr. Mike Adkesson is proof that childhood dreams can come true. Raised by animal lovers who weren’t necessarily animal people, Adkesson had his first encounter with his future at 8 in a summer program at the Scovill Zoo in Decatur.

The close encounters with animals that summer “stuck” and today the animal lover has stepped into the role of director at Brookfield Zoo (he was previously head of Brookfield Zoo’s Veterinary Services Department) with a unique opportunity to forge a future for the animals, many of whom he knows by name, and a connection to the people who visit them.

He and his wife Adriane, a small animal veterinarian he met in veterinary school, are raising their kids, Tyler, 11, and Carter, 8, to be animal lovers, too. They currently share space with a dog, fish and two tortoises named Clarence and Lightning McQueen and even had a recent sleepover with a sloth.

We caught up with him recently.

What can animal parents teach human parents?

“Patience. It always seems like we are in such a big hurry with everything and you kind of miss those small moments. I love just watching different animals with their offspring. Their life is slower and they are able to just kind of be in that moment and you see those little sparks with a mother animal interacting with her cub or whatever the case may be. You can tell the mother is just enjoying the experience with the offspring.

“Tenacity in not giving up in getting the animal to do what it needs to do. Every animal has its own niche in this world and its own way of developing skills. I sometimes watch animal parents trying to teach their offspring some skill or life event that they need to learn. They certainly don’t give up on it. You see them passing skills and opportunities along to their kids.”

Best parenting advice  received:

“Slow down and enjoy the little moments. That’s one of the things so many people said to me, ‘enjoy them while they’re little because it goes by so fast.’ It is so true. That’s the biggest thing for me, to leave work at work and enjoy the time that I am at home.”

Advice for parents of younger children who have a passion for animals:

“I think the best thing you can do is just support it and encourage it. I think that there’s a million different ways to get to a point in a career with animals, whether that’s through youth programs at a zoo or nature center. Helping them to get the opportunity to experience animals, to make sure it’s something they are truly passionate about. It can be long hours, it can be a dirty job at times, it is a lot of hard work. But for children who are truly focused on a career with animals, there’s tons and tons of opportunities out there.”



Macaroni and cheese
in any form.


“That they know how much they are loved.”

Most hated household chore:

“I don’t love any of them very much. Let’s go with vacuuming.”

Favorite secret place at the zoo:

The underwater sea lion viewing. “It’s tucked away a little bit and I think a lot of people miss that. I love sea lions so that’s always a favorite little spot for me to slip away to.”

What do you do for fun:

“I love being on the water, boat, jet ski, water ski. I love a good book. I love movies.”

What’s in the works at the zoo that families will love?

The zoo is creating a master plan as it looks toward its centennial in 2034.

“We’re trying to dream big,” he says. Among the changes will be updates to the dolphin area and sea lion pool as well as redevelopment of the area near the rhinos and giraffes. He didn’t rule out the possibility of elephants returning.

But even sooner will be creation of an outdoor habitat for the gorillas and orangutans in late 2023. Not only will the animals benefit by being outside in a natural environment, he says, but plans call for a lot of glass windows that let families — and the apes — have those pure moments of connection.

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