George Bernard Rabb

George Bernard Rabb, President Emeritus of the Chicago Zoological Society, died peacefully, Thursday July 27, after a brief illness. Rabb’s pioneering work as Brookfield Zoo’s Director, from 1976 until 2003, led the Zoo toward its current position as a center of conservation, a concept Rabb championed for zoos throughout the world. He firmly believed that conservation organizations and nature-focused institutions should work to inspire people to become involved in environmental conservation.

Hailing from Charleston, South Carolina, Rabb displayed interest in nature from an early age, observing the behavior of carpenter ants in his grandparents’ yard. He formally trained as a herpetologist, receiving both masters and doctoral degrees from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a bachelor’s degree from the College of Charleston, South Carolina. Rabb joined Brookfield Zoo in 1956 as curator of research and in 1976 he took the helm as President of the Chicago Zoological Society and Zoo Director. He created Brookfield Zoo’s Education Department and was instrumental in the use of naturalistic exhibitry to provide visitors with environmental immersion experiences throughout the Zoo. Additionally, Dr. Rabb led the creation of the Hamill Family Play Zoo, drawing on the emerging field of conservation psychology to pioneer a new approach to help children develop caring attitudes towards nature.

Fiercely dedicated to encouraging zoos to engage the hearts, spirits, and minds of people in caring for the environment, Dr. Rabb inspired equally fierce loyalty in his staff and colleagues, many of whom remained in close touch until the end of his life. They recall the twinkle in his eye, his quiet nature (peppered by an occasional expletive), and his soaring baritone singing voice heralding his approach.

Often the irresistible force, though sometimes the immoveable object, Rabb was a tireless champion for conservation throughout the world. He helped establish the Okapi Wildlife Preserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In collaboration with others, Rabb secured for conservation 850,000 acres of land in Australia. He also helped establish the Australian Landscape Trust—which enables effective community management of land—and served as a member of their board.

A past chairman of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—the largest species conservation network in the world—he founded its Declining Amphibian Population Task Force, and subsequently helped to establish the Amphibian Survival Alliance. Throughout his career, he remained dedicated to conserving species globally, with particular focus on declines and extinctions of the world’s amphibian species. In 2008, a newly discovered but now extinct Panamanian frog was named Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog—Ecnomiohyla rabborum—in honor of Rabb and his wife Mary, and their lifelong support of amphibian conservation.

Dr. Rabb served on numerous boards, including those of the Illinois State Museum and Defenders of Wildlife. He also was deeply involved with the Center for Humans and Nature, sharing their commitment to transforming humanity’s relationship with nature. He was active with Chicago Wilderness, a multi-organizational alliance to maintain biological diversity of the metropolitan region, was a member of the University of Chicago’s Committee on Evolutionary Biology, and a research associate of The Field Museum.

George was preceded in death by the love of his life and best friend, Mary Sughrue Rabb (2006). George and Mary met in Charleston and were married in 1953. Mary worked alongside George at Brookfield Zoo starting in 1963.

George was also preceded in death by his beloved parents, Joseph and Teresa Rabb.

George is survived by his sister, Mildred Rabb Thrush and brother-in-law, Aaron Dean Thrush of Fort Walton, Beach, Florida; and their children, Teresa A Thrush of Fort Walton Beach, Florida; Melissa M Thrush (Chris Reid) of Niceville, Florida; and Lara Thrush Long (Brian) of Atlanta, Georgia. Also surviving him are his brother in-law, Joseph E Moran, Sr. of Ladson, South Carolina; and his children, Joseph E Moran, Jr. (Susan) of Charleston, South Carolina; Dorothy M Dempster (Dymond) of Fredericksburg, Virginia; Paul A Moran of Waynesville, North Carolina; William F Moran of Charleston, South Carolina; Mary M Kinney (Michael) of Ladson, South Carolina; and Anita M Burns (Jeff) of Mebane, North Carolina. George is preceded in death by his sister Martha Rabb Moran (2009). He is also survived by a host of grand nieces and nephews who were all enamored and awed by their great Uncle George and his love of animals who had no voice.

A celebration of George’s life will be held at Brookfield Zoo on Sunday, September 17, 2017 at 6 P.M. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to CBSG/Amphibian Ark, c/o IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, 12101 Johnny Cake Ridge Road Apple Valley, MN 55124 ( Arrangements by Hitzeman Funeral Home Ltd., 9445 West 31st Street, Brookfield, IL 60513. Information 708-485-2000 or

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  1. Cheryl condolence:

    My heart goes out to the family! Death is truly an enemy- one that God through Jesus Christ will soon eliminate (1 Corinthians 15:26). Click on the link for more comforting thoughts:

  2. Karen Kaufman Bertolini condolence:

    I was saddened to hear about the death of my Uncle and Godfather George Rabb. He is in my thoughts and prayers.

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