Brookfield Zoo’s top cop serves guests, staff and animals

Brookfield Zoo Chicago Police Sgt. Lee Zeitlin.

One thing the millions of guests at Brookfield Zoo Chicago may have never noticed is the zoo has its own police force.

With a roster of nine full-time police officers/emergency medical technicians and several part-time officers, longtime Brookfield Zoo Chicago Police Department Sgt. Lee Zeitlin said, “Our focus is our responsibility to the guests, staff and, of course, the animals.”

Although he is a bit partial to the dolphins, lions and wolves, engaging with the zoo’s visitors is one of the most important aspects of his job with the zoo’s police department, Zeitlin said.

Zeitlin started his career at the zoo as a seasonal police officer.

“Forty years later, I’m still here,” he said. “I want to get away from the stigma that we are just security or a guard. We are all certified professional police officers/EMTs.”

The department has its own police cars, ambulance and bicycle patrol.

“We have everything right here,” Zeitlin said.

He acknowledged the role of a police officer at a zoo is a bit different from a traditional police officer, but they do many things a regular police officer would do.

“But we also have a focus on customer service and being community-oriented by assisting staff and guests,” he said.

With more than 2.2 million visitors each year, Brookfield Zoo Chicago is home to more than 3,500 animals representing more than 500 species and presenting some unique situations for police officers.

For example, Zeitlin recently helped coordinate the safe transfer and return of the zoo’s seven dolphins – Lucky, 50; Tapeko, 42; Allie, 36; Kai, 29; Spree, 21; Noelani, 20; and Allison, 18 – from another accredited zoo while their habitat was undergoing an extensive $10 million renovation.

Zeitlin said he coordinated with state police forces and highway patrols to make sure “everything was safe and secure” getting from point A to point B.

The zoo’s evolution as an event destination for birthday parties, corporate events and weddings has led to the police creating daytime and nighttime operations, Zeitlin said.

He said he has lost count of the number of children he has reunited with parents over his career, adding many times children momentarily wander off and are quickly reunited with parents who simply went in a different direction.

“We have a whole protocol in place,” he said. “In cases of special-needs children, we rev it up pretty quickly.”

Riverside Director of Public Safety Matthew Buckley, who leads both the police and fire departments for the village, got his start as a part-time security officer for Brookfield Zoo Chicago in 1985, where he first met Zeitlin.

Buckley credited Zeitlin with teaching him how to work with people during his time at the zoo.

“The zoo is a very customer-oriented environment and our job was to find lost kids, direct traffic and answer questions regarding a particular animal,” Buckley said.

Zeitlin was instrumental in teaching other police officers how to mitigate situations and work through them, figuring out a good resolution, Buckley said.

“He really shaped our careers in addition to being one of the nicest guys you will ever meet,” Buckley said. “Everyone he encounters is considered a friend.”