Lincoln Park Zoo and Animals Lose a Friend


Sometimes people impact your life so profoundly….sometimes they are school teachers, one of mine was an animal teacher, named Pat Sass.

My interest in animals goes back many years, and includes more than pets. Back when I was in college (University of Illinois, Chicago), I had a regular contingent of guests on my college radio and TV shows, and they included legendary Lincoln Park Zoo director Dr. Lester Fisher, and lead keeper/curator Pat Sass. I’m unsure – to this day – why they (and others) were so willing to appear on these shows, which virtually no one saw or listened to.

Certainly, the school was surprised each time, as Pat would come to the studio with an animal or two. Once she brought a baby orangutan. I’m sure she’d agree today that isn’t necessarily a good thing – but back then zoos, and all of us, thought differently.

Pat told me she took a taxi to the studio. It was quite chilly out, she had the baby orangutan pretty wrapped up….The taxi driver kept looking back, glancing peeks as he could get them. Finally, after Pat paid her faire, she told me the taxi driver said, “Lady, this is none of my business, but that’s a pretty ugly baby you have there.”

On another occasion, a barn owl flew into the lighting grid – it took an hour to coax him down. I wish had videos of just one of those appearances, mostly to show you the connection Pat had with animals – it was visible.

Years later, as a volunteer at the zoo – I was among the last of the hosts for the ‘Chimpanzee Tea Party.’ By then, Pat was at the Children’s Zoo and it was her job to oversee the tea parties. My ‘job,’ was to make my entrance in a red flier wagon being pulled by a young chimpanzee named Chimmy. He was so strong, he could easily pull me with a single finger.

Chimmy would sit at a make shift table and have tea (really was water), as I spoke about the zoo and about chimpanzees. Then a helper would bring Chimmy back inside, and I’d walk around the outdoor pavilion with a ferret, small snake or some other animal for kids to touch. Often, I recall an Arctic fox pup would join in the fun. While this was all about education,  it’s a good thing the longtime zoo tradition went away as young great apes belong with their parents not at a tea party – but it was another era.

With my interest in great apes, I often led zoo visitors on tours of the Great Ape House, which Pat was curator for a time.

Pat broke through in what was then a man’s world, few zookeepers were women, and even fewer women back then served in management as a lead keeper or curator. She could be tough, but her heart was golden. Back then veterinary facilities at zoos weren’t what they are today. Pat wouldn’t hesitate to bring a baby ape or any animal home when mom – for whatever reason – didn’t care for the newborn.

Pat also had a desire and the ability to communicate and connect with the public, as did her boss Dr. Lester Fisher.

I learned a lot from Pat, and she (like Dr. Fisher) instilled in me a desire to make a difference for animals.

Pat Sass passed away on November 10. Here is a part of the obituary.

Patricia Diane Sass was born on July 21, 1942 in Chicago, IL the daughter of Edward and Mary (Zokoych) Sass. She graduated from Lakeview High School in Chicago in 1960. In 1961, Pat began her career at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago by landing a non-paying job at the Children’s Zoo. In 1962, she talked with the, then, zoo director, R. Marlin Perkins and was named to the post of zoo leader, meaning she was now a paid member of the Lincoln Park Zoo family. Over the years, Pat moved up the zoo hierarchy, becoming an animal keeper and senior keeper. She retired in 1998, after 37 years and moved, with her mother, to Neillsville to be closer to her loving and supportive family.

Pat was a member of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Neillsville and a former member of St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Chicago. She had a deep and passionate love of all animals, but especially loved the great apes. She also loved Disney, especially the Seven Dwarfs character “Grumpy”, and she was a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and Chicago Bears. Pat was a sweet, kind, generous person who would do anything for anyone at a moment’s notice. She will be sadly missed by her family and friends. 

In the late 1980’s, I was writing about animals for the Chicago Tribune. Here’s a piece where I quote Pat. Also, it’s  just interesting to read this vintage story.