In a few weeks I will be visiting the San Diego Zoo for the third time. Failing to do so previously, I’ve made it a point to read up on this amazing zoo’s history before I visit. In the interests of chronology, I will begin with Dr. Harry Wegeforth, the zoo’s founder, first president, and colorful character.
Born in 1882, Harry Wegeforth grew up in Baltimore and demonstrated an early interest in animals. He read animal behavior books, hosted circus performances with toy animals, and loved hunting for snakes and turtles in his Baltimore neighborhood. At age 12 he would sneak off to the local circus to attend practices. He became so adept at tightrope walking that he was invited to go on tour with them, but an older brother intervened and put an end to his circus career. In 1906 he received his medical degree from Baltimore Medical College and completed postgraduate training in surgery at Johns Hopkins University. In 1908 Wegeforth headed west in search of a place to start his medical practice. He ultimately chose San Diego, and eventually two of his brothers, also physicians, followed him to the coastal city.
In 1916, Harry and his brother Paul served as surgeons for the Panama–California Exposition, which was held in San Diego’s Balboa Park. What Harry would say to his brother one day during one of their drives through Balboa Park is forever etched in San Diego Zoo lore. Driving past the lion cages at the Exposition, Harry casually mentioned to his brother, “Wouldn’t it be splendid if San Diego had a zoo? You know . . . I think I’ll start one.” It turns out, he wasn’t joking. And so, famously, “it began with a roar.”
Determined and energized from the start, Harry immediately sent out a call for interested parties to help him form the Zoological Society of San Diego. The Park Department agreed to turn over the menagerie of animals to the zoo after the Exposition ended. As a result, the zoo began as only a row of cages in Balboa Park, which featured lions, bears, deer, buffalo, ducks, lynxes, golden eagles, a badger, a gray fox, a coyote, and a few birds. With little to no financial help, he mostly used his personal funds to start the zoo from scratch. He dedicated this pet project to the children of San Diego. After all, he wouldn’t want to let down the children.
San Diego residents also donated animals found in their yards or held as private collections. As the number of animals grew, Wegeforth made it clear to the city that these cages simply would not hold up—it wasn’t just “Wegeforth’s Folly” anymore. He needed land in order to give San Diego the world-class zoo that he had envisioned and to give the animals a better life. Ultimately, as a physician, one of his top priorities was the health and well-being of the animals.
Eventually, the city council initially allotted 17 acres of canyon land in Balboa Park that they had thought would ultimately be unusable. Determined to prove them wrong, Dr. Wegeforth would ride his horse around the land, sketching in his head ideas for the zoo’s layout. He turned his medical practice into a “war room” for contractors and designers to work on the blueprints and planning.
I have never met a man with Doctor Harry’s animal-like persistence, or his tenacity of purpose to do the job and carry it to completion, come hell or high water. —Dr. Charles Schroeder, in his introduction to It Began with a Roar!
As I was reading about Wegeforth, I found myself making comparisons between him and Jungle Jack Hanna, the famous former director of the Columbus Zoo. One obvious reason was his sheer enthusiasm for creating a world-class zoo, even though he had little to no experience operating a zoo. Another was his innate ability to attract donors for his ambitious ideas. The World War I years proved difficult to attract the donations he needed in order to carry out many of his plans, but during the 1920s he worked the fundraising circuit so hard that a slew of wealthy San Diego philanthropists, including a cash donation of $57,000 from Ellen Browning Scripps (one of many of her gifts to the zoo over the years), helped Wegeforth catapult his vision to the next level. He was also able to obtain more land from the city, which expanded the zoo grounds to a more respectable 210 acres by 1922. Scripps also funded the fencing around the zoo grounds so that the zoo could begin charging an admission fee (although Wegeforth demanded that children always be admitted free of charge). This would help bring in additional revenue that the zoo so badly needed. Scripps also donated funds to build what would become in 1923 the largest aviary in the world, measuring 95 feet high by 115 feet long.
No one person gave so much of his personal energy, interest, devotion and very life to the development of a public project as Doctor Harry gave to the creation of the Zoo. —Tom Faulconer, Zoo Director, 1923–1926
His job was that of manager, promoter, planner, financial advisor, and much of the time in the early days he was the sole support. —Official San Diego Zoo Guidebook, 1950s
Yet another characteristic of Wegeforth reminded me of Hanna was his penchant for drumming up crazy ideas.
In 1917 the zoo received its first large donation in the form of a 1,800-pound Kodiak bear named Caesar. She had been a “mascot” aboard a U.S. Navy ship. At a year old, Caesar was friendly with the humans but became too large and rambunctious to remain a shipmate, so the Navy donated her to the zoo. One problem: the zoo did not own a vehicle large enough to carry out the transport. Dr. Wegeforth and Dr. Joseph Thompson, a member of the zoo’s board came up with a plan, which Wegeforth recounted in his diary:
“We scratched our heads, wondering how to get her to the Zoo. None of us knew anything about crating bears, nor did we . . . even [have] the money to rent a truck. We did the only thing we could—put a collar and chain around Caesar’s neck and seated her beside Dr. Thompson in the front seat of his auto. As the citizenry gaped, the two of them drove through the city to the Zoo, which was then just a few cages left from the Exposition” (Wegeforth and Morgan, p. 76).
(The fact that Caesar broke out of her rickety cage multiple times and could snap 2x4s like toothpicks also contributed to Dr. Harry’s argument that a real zoo with secure bear grottos needed to be built sooner rather than later.)
In the early days of any zoo, it was pretty much agreed upon that you weren’t a legit zoo unless you had elephants. After a few failed attempts at procuring these popular giants (which made Wegeforth the butt of many jokes in the local newspaper), Dr. Harry finally arranged for well-known animal dealer Frank Buck to bring back two Asian work elephants from Calcutta in 1923. The fact that this delivery was actually coming to fruition threw Dr. Harry into a total frenzy. Again, the transport issue posed a problem. Additionally, the zoo didn’t exactly have the funds to pay for the elephants. Wegeforth called upon wealthy local businessman John D. Spreckels, who had provided funds for such purposes in the past—which also meant that he was familiar with Dr. Harry’s amusing tactics to procure donations. After much song and dance from Wegeforth, Spreckels finally agreed to fund the elephants. But for that price, he declared, they better be white elephants! (This was a jab at P. T. Barnum, who had claimed he possessed a white elephant, but it was actually light grey.)
Dr. Harry solved the funding problem, but now he was still facing two problems: how to transport the elephants AND how to make them white!
After the elephants arrived via Pacific Ocean and then by rail from San Francisco, having been cooped up in transport crates and exhausted from the long journey, the two elephants—Empress and Queenie—refused to move an inch. Dr. Harry and his head keeper, Harry Edwards, tried to coax them along, but they would not budge. Knowing that they had been work elephants in India, Dr. Harry figured that they were used to being ridden. Dr. Harry mounted one and convinced Edwards to mount the other. Giving the elephant a nudge did the trick, and the duo rode the elephants from the train station all the way to the zoo. Like witnessing Caesar in front seat of a roadster, imagine seeing two men riding elephants on the road!
The final problem was solved by Dr. Harry’s great sense of humor, which he conveyed in his diary:
The next day I bought a large keg of white powder and four of the largest powder puffs I could find. I went back to the Zoo and set the keeper to experimenting on the elephants. The result was eminently satisfactory. The next problem was to get Mr. Spreckels to the Zoo. I mapped out a little campaign and, over a period of some time, talked him on every possible occasion about . . . snakes . . . when at last he asked to see one. . . .
An hour and a half crawled by before we could . . . rush Mr. Spreckels over to the elephant compound where the men had been busy wielding valiant powder puffs. There stood the two snowy white, bulging beasts—looking like nothing any mortal had ever seen, their black eyes and pink mouths the only spots of color in the large white expanse. The keepers carried out the white color scheme, for they too were covered with powder from head to foot. (Wegeforth and Morgan, p. 100)
Mr. Spreckels loved the joke so much that not only did he fund the elephants but he also agreed to fund a new building for them.
One of the earliest indications that Wegeforth had a knack for using creativity to bring in funds was back in October 1917 when the zoo completely ran out of money. Before receiving permission from both his zoo board and the military, Wegeforth organized a wartime track-and-field competition to be held between the locally stationed U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. The military and zoo board initially rejected the idea for fear that the event would disrupt wartime mobilization efforts, but Wegeforth used his “tall and fancy talking” to change their minds. Wegeforth later recalled, “We convinced the committee that our show would not appreciably cut the receipts of any military or Red Cross affairs” (Wegeforth and Morgan, p. 91). Ultimately, with a 10-cent entrance fee, the event generated enough revenue from ticket sales to keep the zoo in operation until the end of the year.
That event proved amateur compared to what Wegeforth concocted in 1923. In addition to elephants Empress and Queenie, Frank Buck’s large delivery to the zoo from Asia included a 23-foot-long, 200-pound python named Diablo. When the snake arrived, he staged a hunger strike and refused to eat one bite for five months. Concerned that he would starve to death, his keepers began regular force-feedings to keep him alive. Dr. Harry recalled, “At first we had large sausages made of mixtures of horse meat, fowl, and rabbits, which we forced down his throat. It took six men to hold him and a tub full of meat mixture to feed him.” These feedings caught the attention of the local, and ultimately, the national press. As the feedings attracted more and more spectators, Dr. Harry decided, again initially with no approval, to turn it into a fundraising event. The feedings were moved to the large stadium in Balboa Park, and adults were charged a dime to attend (children were free). Thousands showed up to witness how many men the nasty python would toss into the nearby pool of water.
So successful were the feedings that they became a nationally known ongoing zoo event—about every 90 days—until Diablo’s death in 1928. More elements of entertainment were thrown in so that Diablo was only part of the spectacle. For example, one of the most popular sideshows was Mike the well-dressed orangutan who always made a grand entrance in an automobile.
Whenever anybody started to knock my plans, I just kept right on boosting them. The idea of failure never entered my mind. —Harry Wegeforth, diary entry
Dr. Harry Wegeforth continued as president of the San Diego Zoo until his death in 1941. He left an indelible legacy there, all while maintaining his full-time private medical practice. He made sure that the zoo was one of the first to adopt modern cageless, expansive enclosures for the animals. He also founded the precursor to today’s Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) in 1924 to encourage zoos to collaborate and educate each other. Also known as a master negotiator and trader of animals, in 1925 he negotiated a deal to bring to San Diego the first koalas outside Australia. (To this day the zoo houses the largest colony of koalas outside Australia.) In 1927 his interest in disease in wild animals led to the establishment of the Hospital and Biological Research Institute, which employed the zoo’s first official veterinarian. He clearly planted the seed for the San Diego Zoo to flourish into the extremely well-respected institution that it is today.
But perhaps one of his best decisions was the hiring of Belle Benchley as his secretary in 1925 and in 1927 as the director of the zoo—the world’s first female zoo director, and the subject of my next story.
Amero, Richard W. “The San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park.” Chapter 23 of Balboa Park History. http://www.balboaparkhistory.net/
San Diego Zoo Timeline: https://www.sandiegozooglobal.org/timeline/
Stephenson, Lynda Rutledge. The San Diego Zoo: The First Century. Volume 1: The Founding Era, 1916–1953. San Diego: The Zoological Society of San Diego, 2015.
Wegeforth, Harry, and Neil Morgan. It Began with a Roar!: The Beginning of the World-Famous San Diego Zoo. San Diego: Pioneer Printers, 1953.
Wilkens, John. “From folly to famous: When the San Diego Zoo opened nearly 100 years ago, there was little indication that it would grow into a global landmark.” San Diego Union-Tribune (May 8, 2016): 1.