Belle Benchley, World’s First Female Zoo Director

In 1925 when Dr. Harry Wegeforth realized that, as a full-time surgeon, his responsibilities as president of the San Diego Zoo were piling up, he hired a former teacher and single mother, Belle Benchley, as a temporary bookkeeper to help him handle the day-to-day operations. Little did he realize he had found a gem who in two years’ time would be running the place.

Born in 1882, Belle Jennings moved from rural Kansas to the San Diego area with her family when she was five years old. One of eight children, her public elementary school was located in her own home. After graduating from the San Diego Normal School, she spent four years as a school teacher on the Pala Indian Reservation, north of San Diego. In 1906 she married William Benchley, with whom she had one child, Edward; she spent the next seventeen years in Fullerton, California, as a wife and mother. Divorcing in 1922 and moving back to San Diego, she found herself looking for a steady income to help support her and her growing teenager at home.

The job title of “bookkeeper” was quite a misnomer from the start. Knowing little about animals other than her childhood encounters with wildlife in the California countryside, Benchley was hungry to prove herself an effective staff member. She would spend her lunch breaks and any other chance she could get to familiarize herself with the zoo animals and their caretakers. (She joked that since there wasn’t any money coming in she didn’t have much bookkeeping to do!) She picked Harry Wegeforth’s brain as much as she could to get a sense of his plans and ideas for a rapidly growing, already well-respected zoo.

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Belle Benchley in her San Diego Zoo office. Source: San Diego Zoo

Wegeforth and Benchley made a great team. Benchley picked up quickly on Wegeforth’s vision for a world-class zoo and ran with it. Wegeforth’s trust in Benchley grew rapidly, and eventually Belle was not only keeping the books, she was assisting him with animal acquisitions and trading, helping with fundraising, speaking at public and private functions all over the country, and performing as much of the day-to-day that needed to be done—and not afraid to get her hands dirty with zookeeping duties if called upon. When in 1927 Wegeforth was looking for a new zoo director, he and the zoo board decided to follow the model of the London Zoo by hiring an “executive secretary” instead of a “director.” Dr. Harry knew exactly who he wanted for the job, even though hiring a female leader had never been done before . . .  anywhere—women rarely even served as zookeepers at that time. “You might as well run the place,” he told her, “you’re already doing it anyway.” From that day on, Belle Benchley (“The Zoo Lady”) became a household name in San Diego.

Benchley was well respected not only by Wegeforth but also by the entire zoo community. The animal keepers noticed that she had an amazing almost sixth sense when it came to working with the animals. She could even spot something wrong with an animal from her vehicle and report it to the caretakers. She especially had a special bond with various primates—chimpanzees, orangutans, and eventually the gorillas that arrived in 1931. When primate keeper Henry Newmeyer noticed that Maggie the orangutan had escaped her enclosure and searched everywhere for her, he frantically ran to find Belle for help. Knowing Maggie very well, Belle knew exactly where she would be. “Henry, let’s go check your car,” she said. As they scurried toward the parking lot, sure enough, Maggie was sitting in the driver’s seat of Henry’s car, honking the horn, trying to make the vehicle move. (Maggie loved to go for rides around the zoo with Henry. She was even known to ride aboard the zoo bus with him or Belle!)

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Maggie the orangutan loved to ride in her keeper’s vehicle (or any vehicle!). Source: San Diego Zoo

Another indication that Benchley was loved by the zoo staff came in 1933 when she found herself in the hospital for eleven weeks following an auto accident. The keepers and other staff members would visit her daily; “[s]ometimes as many as eight would come during the same day or evening,” she recalled.  Staff would often sneak in some of the animals when visiting her—baby foxes, binturongs, and other small mammals. Maggie the orangutan was another visitor that they “smuggled” in. “This attention, the time for which had to be borrowed from their all too few leisure hours, touched me deeply because it showed that I had won a place with them not based on relationship of boss and employee, but upon friendship and confidence,” she reminisced in her memoir.

Benchley believed that her proudest moment as zoo director was the acquisition of gorillas Mbongo and Ngagi in 1931. Belle so desperately wanted gorillas in San Diego (only a few zoos in the country had them), and after reading in the newspaper that well-known adventurers and filmmakers Martin and Osa Johnson were looking for a home for a pair of mountain gorillas that they had brought back from the Belgian Congo, Belle immediately penned a pleading note to them. In her letter, she touted San Diego as the perfect place for their gorillas—warm climate, year-round outdoor habitats, fresh fruits and vegetables, an impressive animal longevity record, one of the only zoo hospitals in the country, not to mention the best care team and medical staff. After receiving her letter, the Johnsons immediately moved San Diego to the top of the list; and after seeking recommendations from other top zoo administrators and researchers, they backed up Benchley’s claims. Not only were the gorillas headed to San Diego for half the price that other zoos were offering, the Johnsons also funded the construction of new gorilla enclosures for Mbongo and Ngagi.

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Mbongo (top) with Ngagi in their San Diego Zoo enclosure. Source: San Diego Zoo

Benchley fell in love with the gorillas from day one, spending as much time as she could with them to make sure they settled in and enjoyed their new home. The gorillas grew to love her visits as well, emoting pleasure rumbles when she appeared and clapping their hands when they didn’t think she was giving them enough attention. Because not much was known about the species at the time, zoologists from around the world started showing up to study Mbongo and Ngagi’s behavior and personalities. Zoo attendance soared as visitors made a bee-line to see the gorillas in their new home. Although the pair was believed to be a breeding pair, the keepers figured out a few years later that both gorillas were male. Benchley was devastated when Mbongo, her “lovable clown,” died in 1942 of a fungal infection. When he fell ill, she would spend evenings with him, holding his hand and comforting him. When his heart finally stopped, she wrote, “I tell myself over and over that we were lucky to have had him so long; that I have no right to feel as I do; but I find myself dreading to go by that cage . . . [knowing that] I have lost a rare friend indeed.” Mbongo’s death was followed by Ngagi’s, her “perfect gorilla,” a year later after a blood clot clogged an artery. Today, Mbongo and Ngagi are memorialized at the zoo’s entrance by large bronze statues.

Most of the animals in the Zoo knew her. They’d wait for her car. And it wasn’t to be fed. They knew Mrs. Benchley, and she knew them. —Ken Stott, zoo curator and historian

Belle had many, many more animal friends on the zoo grounds. One such pal was Bum the Andean condor, who would stick his beak into her pocket to retrieve snacks she brought him. In a newspaper article, she noted that Bum “likes me best. When he sits on the ground and spreads his wings, they measure more than eight feet across. He is so large and strong that he could knock down and beat me to death with his great wings. Or, he could cut off my finger with his large beak. Instead, he holds his head for me to pat, turning it around so that I can rub the sides and back. . . . He unties my shoe laces without touching a thread of my silk stockings. If I run on the outside of the cage, he spreads his wings and runs with me.”

Another animal that attached herself immediately was Mickey the Baird’s tapir, who arrived in 1934 from Ecuador, extremely homesick and refusing to eat. Belle would arrive every day extra early so that she could sit with Mickey and feed her breakfast. She would talk softly to her and pet her to calm her. Eventually, Belle was convinced that Mickey thought she was her real mother. The keepers called her “Mrs. Benchley’s string,” as they were so closely tied together.

Mickey-tapir
Belle Benchley with Mickey the tapir. Source: San Diego Zoo

Dr. Wegeforth mentored Benchley especially well not only in negotiating for new animals but also in the art of raising funds for the zoo. During Belle’s early years, the Great Depression put a damper on the zoo’s budget. Zookeepers came to expect a late paycheck. Wegeforth and Benchley worked out deals with local businesses to provide food for the animals. Any scrap of material that could be found was used to build needed enclosures. By 1932, the zoo owed $6,000 in back taxes. City tax assessors threatened to sell the zoo to the State of California if they did not come up with the funds. After Wegeforth and Benchley continued to fight for their exempt status (as they leased and did not own the property), the assessors finally backed down. A few years later the zoo pleaded for the city voters to approve a small tax to help support the zoo. The measure passed, giving the zoo a bit of financial breathing room.

Wegeforth taught Benchley not to be shy when asking for donations. Belle’s son, Ed, recounted the time when she shamed a wealthy local man who had not renewed his zoo membership as expected. “Mother said she sympathized with him, since he’d just built his new bride a mansion and may have needed time to afford a membership. So mother offered to give him a membership and said he could pay back the zoo when things got better financially. The man said, ‘Get the hell out of here!’ But he put his check right in the mail!” Benchley laughed. That trick was right out of Dr. Harry’s playbook.

More than love of animals is required to make a zoo director or an animal man. I have often had to dismiss men, despite their love of animals, because they lacked that something which, for want of a better name, is called animal instinct, a vague term adequately describing something that one either has or has not. Animals discern it first. You may not recognize that you have it until the animal makes you aware—by the nature of his response—that a bond of confidence exists between you.  —Belle Benchley, My Life in a Man-Made Jungle

On top of all her responsibilities, somehow she found time to bring the San Diego Zoo to homes nationwide through her extremely popular books. She published My Life in a Man-Made Jungle in 1940 and My Friends, the Apes in 1942. She wrote another memoir, My Animal Babies, in 1945 and a children’s book, Shirley Visits the Zoo in 1947. One woman was so inspired by My Life in a Man-Made Jungle that during the zookeeper shortage brought on by World War II, a woman named Georgia Dittoe moved from Los Angeles to become San Diego’s first female zookeeper and help out with Benchley’s amazing zoo.

The 1940s were full of ups and downs for Benchley and the San Diego Zoo. The bombing of Pearl Harbor was felt immensely in the military coastal city, and actions were taken at the zoo to prepare for possible air raids. (All zookeepers were given rifles in case of animal escapes, and the windows of the reptile house were reinforced as much as possible. Fortunately, the rifles never had to be used.) Belle lost several staff to the draft; in fact, the first number drawn by the Selective Service System in 1942 belonged to zookeeper Howard Lee. Newspapers across the country featured him and his profession, providing the zoo with an unexpected nationwide promotion. (The zoo received another publicity boost when newspapers circulated a photo of young chimpanzee Georgie contributing one of his tire toys to a scrap rubber drive.)

The largest loss had come earlier in 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor, when Dr. Harry Wegeforth died of a heart attack at the age of 59. Benchley had lost a great friend and colleague. She confided in a friend, “I have never felt so all alone in all my life” and often found herself asking, “What would Harry do?” But true to her go-getter attitude, she became even more determined to carry on Wegeforth’s legacy. She would not let him down.

Zoo admission dropped as expected during the war, but because San Diego was a military town, residents both civilian and military used the zoo as a needed escape from the stressful wartime events. According to the zoo, “Belle Benchley took over many of the duties herself during this time, spending long hours taking care of the animals, managing budgets that were tighter than ever, and using some of Dr. Harry’s schemes to acquire needed items and food for the animals.” Largely because of her, the zoo made it through these hard times much better than most other zoos across the country.

After the war ended, Benchley and the San Diego Zoo resumed building their world-class reputation and resuming activities that were put on hold during the war. The zoo’s fame continued to grow, more visitors entered the gates, groundbreaking research was performed in the zoo’s hospital facilities, and new, exciting animals made their home in San Diego. In 1946, the zoo acquired an exotic species of antelope—the bontebok—considered extinct in the wild. This was a testament to their success in breeding threatened species. In January 1949, the zoo obtained two snow leopards, believed to be the first ever in captivity. That same year, to Belle’s extreme delight—and after she had written many letters, made numerous phone calls, and had her hopes raised only to be disappointed several times before her efforts paid off —the zoo obtained three baby gorillas. Ten thousand people came to see them the first day they were on exhibit. One of the gorillas, Albert, would become the father of the zoo’s first baby gorilla (Alvila) born in San Diego in 1965. Other exciting events included the birth of a northern fur seal (the first in captivity) in 1950, the first million-visitor year in 1951, and the arrival of four koalas from Sydney, Australia, in 1952.

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Belle Benchley is all smiles with gorillas Albert, Bouba, and Bata in 1949. Source: San Diego Zoo
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Belle Benchley, veterinarian Dr. Glen Crosbie, and mammal curator Ken Stott, Jr. welcome the four koalas that came from Sydney, Australia, to play their part in the Hollywood film Botany Bay in 1952. After filming, the koalas were donated to the zoo. Source: San Diego Zoo

Benchley made history yet again in 1949 when she became the first female president of the American Zoological Association. She served a one-year term, after having served on committees in the organization.

When Belle retired on December 10, 1953, San Diego city and county officials designated it “Belle Benchley Day.” About 800 people attended her retirement dinner, at the end of which she was presented with the gift of a three-month trip around the world. She was now able to take that vacation that eluded her during her hard-working zoo years. When she announced her retirement to the zoo board, they strongly protested. How in the world would they survive without Belle? She replied, “I’m sure the zoo will be around long after I’m gone. After all, I brought a lot of people working here up from pups, and saw to it that they learned their lessons well.” She also knew the zoo would be in capable hands with Dr. Charles Schroeder, long-time zoo veterinarian, at the helm. He would serve as director for the next nineteen years.

Benchley didn’t become a stranger to the zoo. She would often visit her human and animal friends for the rest of her life. She loved to show off the zoo to her family, especially her granddaughter, Laurel.

Now and then I meet someone who says, ‘I don’t like animals.’ I know that person has missed the proper chance to know animals and has thus been deprived of one of the richest experiences in life. I cannot keep from pitying him, for to know animals is to love them. —Belle Benchley, My Life in a Man-Made Jungle

Belle Benchley died in 1972 at age 90. Her gravestone is inscribed with “The Zoo Lady” and, so appropriately, a smiling gorilla.

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Belle Benchley’s burial site in Greenwood Memorial Park, San Diego. Source: Find a Grave

Personal connection: Belle Benchley’s paternal grandfather, Austin H. Jennings, a native of Delaware County, Ohio, was one of the founders of Ohio Wesleyan University, the alma mater of yours truly!


San Diego Zoo: The Benchley Years

  • 1925: Benchley hired as temporary bookkeeper
  • 1926: First issue of ZOONOOZ (zoo’s member magazine) published (the publication is still in circulation)
  • 1927: Ellen Browning Scripps Hospital and Biological Research Institute built (first zoo veterinary hospital); Benchley named executive secretary of the zoo
  • 1928: Young orangutans Maggie and Mike arrive from Asia; 30 tortoises arrive from the Galapagos Islands (some of which still live at the zoo!); San Diego Zoo was third largest in the world
  • 1931: Gorillas Mbongo and Ngagi purchased from Martin and Osa Johnson
  • 1932: Tax assessors threaten to sell the zoo to the State of California
  • 1934: First zoo tax passed by city residents
  • 1937: Scripps flight cage built (largest aviary in the world)
  • 1938: Giraffes Lofty and Patches arrive (survived a hurricane on the journey to the United States)
  • 1940: Benchley publishes My Life in a Man-Made Jungle
  • 1941: Dr. Harry Wegeforth dies at the age of 59; zoo plants its own garden to save money during the war
  • 1942: First Andean condor hatched in captivity in the United States; Benchley publishes My Friends, the Apes
  • 1943: Benchley hires SDZ’s first female zookeeper, Georgia Dittoe; first hippo born at the zoo (Rubie gives birth to Lotus)
  • 1944: First captive-bred cobra hatches
  • 1945: Benchley publishes My Animal Babies
  • 1947: Four rare Northern seals arrive
  • 1948: Arrival of five-year-old orangutan Doris (an immediate favorite with staff and visitors) to be a mate for Kokok
  • 1949: Gorillas Albert, Bouba, and Bata arrive (Albert later became the father of Alvila, the zoo’s first gorilla birth, in 1965); Benchley begins term as American Zoological Association president (1949–1950)
  • 1950: First fur seal birth in captivity
  • 1951: Zoo attendance beaks the one million mark for the first time
  • 1952: Four koala arrive from Sydney, Australia; first rhino (black rhino named Sally) arrives from East Africa
  • 1953: Benchley retires on December 10

Sources

“Animals Respond When She Speaks.” Washington Post (October 3, 1937): PY2.

“An Eventful Century at the Zoo.” San Diego Union-Tribune (May 8, 2016): 2.

Belle Jennings Benchley (1882–1973). San Diego History Center. https://sandiegohistory.org/archives/biographysubject/benchley/

Benchley, Belle. My Life in a Man-Made Jungle. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1940.

Benchley, Belle. My Friends, the Apes. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1942.

Calvano, Rita. “The zoo: It’s quite a story—Cagey civic leaders founded it just 70 years ago.” San Diego Union-Tribune (September 30, 1986): A1.

Poynter, Margaret. The Zoo Lady: Belle Benchley and the San Diego Zoo. Minneapolis, MN: Dillon Press, 1980.

San Diego Zoo. Centennial Timeline. https://timeline.sandiegozoo100.org

San Diego Zoo. Timeline of Events. http://library.sandiegozoo.org/history.htm

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. “The Zoo at 100: Gorillas a Match for San Diego.” San Diego Union-Tribune (September 19, 2016): 1.

Wilkens, John. “The Zoo at 100: ‘Zoo Lady’ Passionate about Job.” San Diego Union-Tribune (August 8, 2016): 1.

Women’s Museum of California. San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame Inductees, 2007. https://web.archive.org/web/20180921120432/http://womensmuseumca.org/hall-of-fame/belle-benchley

Worley, Karen E. “100 Years of the San Diego Zoo.” ZOONOOZ (November 2015), pp. 8-11. https://issuu.com/sdzglobal/docs/zoonooz_november_2015

Worley, Karen E. “100 Years of the San Diego Zoo. Part 2: Tenacity, 1927-1936.” ZOONOOZ (January 2016), pp. 20-22. https://issuu.com/sdzglobal/docs/janzoonooz/27

Worley, Karen E. “100 Years of the San Diego Zoo. Part 3: War Years, 1937-1946; Part 4: Growth, 1947-1956.” ZOONOOZ (March 2016), pp. 20-23. https://issuu.com/sdzglobal/docs/march_zn

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