Primate specialist Henderson respected for his work with animals
BY KATIE DREWS August 26, 2012 7:44PM
Updated: September 28, 2012 6:19AM
The zoo community in Chicago and around the country lost one of its most beloved primates of the human kind.
Andrew James Henderson, a longtime former employee at Lincoln Park Zoo who most recently served as primate supervisor at Utah’s Hogle Zoo, died Aug. 20 of colon cancer at his home in Salt Lake City, where he lived since 2007. He was 52.
Throughout his 25-plus years at Lincoln Park Zoo, Mr. Henderson cared for thousands of animals, from snakes and raptors to gorillas and chimpanzees, and worked his way up to a management position, during which time he served as a mentor to other zoo keepers and helped design the state-of-the-art Regenstein Center for African Apes.
Mr. Henderson was also a former president of the local chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers and served two years as a board member of the national organization. He traveled to zoos in the U.S. and abroad inspecting them for accreditation and once spent two weeks in Africa with Jane Goodall on a gorilla expedition.
“Andy was pretty incredible,” said Diane Mulkerin, a curator at Lincoln Park Zoo. “He loved talking with people, he loved working with the animals — he loved everything that he did.”
“He was very infectious with his enthusiasm and with his knowledge,” added Kimberly Davidson, assistant director at Utah’s Hogle Zoo. “If someone was interested, Andy would fill you in on everything he knew.”
A Chicago native, Mr. Henderson was born Dec. 17, 1959, and grew up around the steel mills on the Southeast Side with his parents and three brothers. His dad was employed by U.S. Steel while his mother worked first at a butcher shop and later at a school cafeteria.
As a boy, Mr. Henderson wanted to be a veterinarian and often adopted neighborhood creatures as pets.
“We lived in a small city house and there were six of us, so there wasn’t a lot of room to be spared, but alongside the house he had snakes and lizards and turtles — whatever he could get away with, he got away with,” said his brother, Mike Henderson.
Mr. Henderson went on to earn bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences and chemical sciences from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a master’s degree from Northeastern Illinois University.
His career at Lincoln Park Zoo began in the children’s zoo. He handled a wide variety of animals and educated zoo visitors, sometimes with a macaque on his head or a snake wrapped around his waist. He would also entertain the public by leading tea parties with a chimpanzee and an orangutan.
“Sometimes Eve, the chimpanzee, would be really naughty,” said Janice Siska Hjelmgren, a former zoo volunteer. “I remember at one tea party, she tipped over the table, so the tea and the cookies went all over. And she took off. Andy was lightning fast and was with her immediately and brought her back. He had a really great sense of humor about it and enjoyed all of it.”
Mr. Henderson worked for some time as a night keeper taking care of the zoo after it closed to the public. One evening he brought family members along to bottle feed and play with a young chimp and baby orangutan. “Being there with Andy and seeing the grin on his face playing with these little animals, I saw why he enjoyed his job so much,” Mike Henderson said. “They were like his kids.”
In 1995, Mr. Henderson was promoted to area supervisor of primates. He was actively involved in the development of the zoo’s new ape center and orchestrated all of the animal shipments while the building was under construction. Once the center opened, he retrained the apes, including a newly acquired group of chimpanzees.
“It was a five-year process,” said Dave Bernier, general curator at Lincoln Park Zoo. “He put a lot of energy into it and he took a lot of pride in that.”
Mr. Henderson, who never married, lived many years on the North Side of Chicago with his dogs and other pets he rescued, including a boa constrictor. In his younger days he roller skated to work and later traded in his skates for motorcycles. He loved motorcycles and often took long trips on his bike out West.
“He was just a wonderful person, an amazing mentor,” said Amanda Kamradt, a zoo keeper at Zoo New England in Boston. “He was extremely fun and down to earth. It was impossible to be around him and ever be in a bad mood.”
Aside from Mike, Mr. Henderson is survived by his brothers Scott and Barry.
A Chicago memorial is pending.