We humans have had a long association with wild animals. For all but the last few thousand years of our two million years, we have depended on them for our very existence. We were hunters in our early days, drifting along with the game herds, dipping into that seemingly inexhaustible river of life for our food and clothing. When the herds prospered, we are well; when hard times came on them, our bellies shrank. So close was our relationship with wild animals, we called them our brothers.
The Chinese and Egyptians were the first to establish collections of wild animals. About five thousand years ago, Chinese emperors maintained animal parks for their private use, usually hunting. The Pharaohs of Egypt sent expeditions into the interior of Africa to collect animals for royal menageries. Later, Roman legions sent back wild animals, along with human slaves, from their conquests. Often these two animals and humans ended up pitted against each other in gladiatorial battles for their captors entertainment.
The first true zoo was built in France by Louis XIV, but it was modern only in comparison with what had existed before. Louis wild animals were housed in champed, dirty cages, often by themselves, and fed food which rarely approximated their natural diet. Mortality rates were high, but little attention was given to this; dead animals could be replaced easily from the rivers of wildlife still flowing in the wilderness.
At the turn of the 20th century the first modern zoo was designed and built at Stellingen, near Hamburg, Germany. It had a minimum of cages and barred enclosures; animals were exhibited in large, “natural” surroundings of artificial mountains, plains and caves, usually with others of their species.
And now I want to tell you about the most famous zoo in the world The San-Diego Zoo.
In Began with a Roar
The San Diego Zoo, established in 1916, was far different from today's grand; exotic, zoological garden. For the most part, it grew from a small collection of animals held in traditional circus like cages that formed a portion of the city's 1915-1916 Panama-California International Exposition held in Balboa Park. After the close of the Exposition, a San Diego physician, Dr. Harry Wegeforth, rescued these animals and started the present Zoo. He would later recall how it all began:
On September 16, 1916, as I was returning to my office after performing an operation at St. Joseph Hospital, I drove down Sixth Avenue and heard the roaring of the lions in the cages at the Exposition then being held in Balboa Park.
I turned to my brother, Paul, who was riding with me, and half jokingly, half wishfully, said, "Wouldn't it be splendid if San Diego had a zoo! You know ...I think I'll start one."
Wegeforth's idea, with the help of other interested San Diegans, would take shape and prosper over the years. Even as a child, growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, he was fascinated by animals. He regularly staged "circuses" in his backyard, using toy animals and stitched-together flour sacks for a "big top" tent. This interest went far beyond normal childish play, because young Harry had done extensive research on the real-life behavior and characteristics of his animal menagerie and enthusiastically explained all of this to visitors at his "performances."
Later on, as an adult, Wegeforth obtained a medical degree and moved to San Diego in 1908 to set up his practice. The work of building the Zoo, however, was soon to consume almost all of his time. It was a gamble and a dream that he lived daily, but a task he relished.
Together with four other menDr. Paul Wegeforth, Dr. Fred Baker, Dr. Joseph H. Thompson, and Frank StephensWegeforth founded the Zoological Society of San Diego on October 2,1916. In 1921, the City of San Diego granted the Society its present home in Balboa Park, and, by 1922, Wegeforth, a few staff members, and a small collection of animals had begun moving in.
Even at this early date, Wegeforth was promoting a zoo that was different from most in existence at that time, including demerits that would, as years passed, result in its being called the "world's greatest zoo." For example, he envisioned a zoological garden where animals could be integrated with plants in pleasing settings with no bars or traditional cages to obstruct a visitor's view. He promoted the idea of grotto and moat enclosuressomething just being tried in European zoos and almost unknown in America.
While riding around the Zoo grounds on his Arabian stallion, Wegeforth would map out in his mind the location of exhibits. Mesas would hold hoofed mammals, reptiles, and birds; the canyons would be reserved for bears and cats. In Johnny Appleseed fashion, he scattered and planted seeds for the new plants he desired. Roads that were laid out for the first bus tours are still used today.
To supplement the initial group of animals gathered from the Balboa Park Exposition, Wegeforth made collecting trips to other countries and other zoos, both here and abroad. His aggressive style of exchanging local animals, such as rattlesnakes and California sea lions, for more exotic species soon earned him the title of "Trader Wegeforth." Other animals were donated to the Zoo from private individuals or Navy ships that docked in San Diego and brought "gifts" to Dr. Harry's Zoo.
Through personal vision, determination, his own financial contributions, and those of others, Harry Wegeforth created the San Diego Zoo. To the uninformed observer of the time, it might have seemed that he realized his dream from almost nothing. Indeed, some of the early exhibits were built from castoffs and discards from other construction projects things that he could acquire for free4 much as he had built his play menageries as a child. He cajoled local wealthy citizens to help him by arousing their' concern for the animals and their city pride. One of his greatest benefactors was newspaper heiress Ellen Browning Scripps, who, by the time of her death, had donated some quarter of a million dollars to the project.
Wegeforth's concern about animal nutrition and health is additionally noteworthy. While not trained as a veterinarian, he nonetheless applied his medical knowledge to the care of Zoo animals and brought in others trained to assist him in this work. This care was reflected in the Zoo's low animal mortality figures.
One day a tiger, writhing in pain with what his keepers suspected to be intestinal problems, needed immediate treatment. As a result of his condition, they considered him too dangerous to rope and tie down for examination (this was an era before the tranquilizer dan gun). Wegeforth sized up the situation and entered the animal's enclosure with a handful of beneficial tablets. The animal crouched, made ready to leap, and opened his gaping jaws to unleash a ferocious roar. At that instant Wegeforth tossed several of the pills into his mouth. Surprised at this action, the tiger backed off momentarily, swallowing the medicine. Not one to back down, the tiger again gathered himself in a crouch, opened his cavernous mouth, and prepared to pounce. Once more Wegeforth administered the medicine, and this time the animal retired to his water basin to wash down the irritating pills. Such examples of Wegeforth's "make do" philosophy of animal medicine made for popular conversation among early Zoo employees.
In April of 1927, just over ten years after the Zoo's founding, he succeeded in opening the Zoological Hospital and Biological Research Institute, a major contribution to the further achievements of the San Diego Zoo. This facility was yet another gift from Miss Scripps.
The Zoo Lady
Also in 1927, the Zoological Society hired its first executive secretary, Mrs. Belle Benchley, an individual who would share Wegeforth's dream and assist him with his goals and plans. She had come to the organization as a bookkeeper in 1925, but soon proved so adept that Wegeforth began using her as his primary assistant. Among other things, he encouraged her to be the Zoo's public relations spokesperson, speaking at civic luncheonsa job she did reluctantly at first but soon mastered. Her work earned her high praise over the years, and following Wegeforth's death in 1941, she took over management of the Zoo.
It was in large part due to Mrs. Benchley that the San Diego Zoo began to achieve a national, even worldwide, prominence. Her books about life at the Zoo, published during the 1940s, made many new friends for the organization. They included My Life in a Man-made Jungle (1940), My Friends the Apes (1942), My Animal Babies (1945), and Shirley Visits the Zoo (1946). Mrs. Benchley's continued care and concern for the Zoo animals' welfare prompted one zoo expert to remark that the San Diego Zoo was "the only zoo in the world that is run for the animals."
Among Mrs. Benchley's more famous accomplishments was the arrival at the Zoo in 1949 of Albert, Bata, and Bouba, a male and two female western lowland gorillas from French West Africa. All less than a year old, these gorilla babies captured the hearts of San Diegans, who lined up by the hundreds to see them. Their first day on exhibit a crowd of some 10,000 arrived, setting a new Zoo attendance record.
The Schroeder Years
Following the retirement of Mrs. Benchley i