“As the country teeters between a depression and Europe’s looming war, a pair of giraffes, survivors of a hurricane at sea, left a wake of much-needed cheer while driven cross-country to the San Diego Zoo, where lady zoo director Mrs. Belle Benchley awaited….”
As a book junkie, when I receive new book alerts I almost always peruse the titles. Recently, one particular work of historical fiction captured my interest—the fact that the title contained the word giraffes certainly helped, but upon reading the description I discovered that it’s based on actual events revolving around the San Diego Zoo in 1938. Sold!
The story begins with a centenarian named Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Nickel sitting in his nursing home watching a TV documentary on the near extinction of giraffes and other endangered species in Africa. Realizing that “punching all the TVs in the world wouldn’t save the giraffes,” he set out to document his story of how two giraffes changed his life forever. Hence, West with Giraffes.
Getting to see a giraffe in 1938 was a pretty rare occasion. There were many reasons giraffes were hard to come by for America’s first zoos. Traveling shows displayed them as early as 1837; however, they were difficult to capture and transport, making them expensive to procure. The first giraffes could be seen in Central Park in 1872 and in Philadelphia in 1874, and the first baby giraffe in captivity was born in Cincinnati in 1889. But by 1925 there were reportedly only five giraffes in the entire country. Many zoos simply weren’t willing to take the risk or didn’t have the funds. But in many ways, the San Diego Zoo had been built on risk taking, and Dr. Harry Wegeforth, the zoo’s former director and then Belle Benchley’s right-hand man, was darn good at fundraising.
With the necessary funds, zoo director Belle Benchley, the first female zoo director in the world, paid for two young Ugandan giraffes and one rhinoceros to be shipped from Africa in 1938. They were to be the zoo’s first giraffes, and the city was excited about the impending arrivals. (Side note: these events occurred one year after young Nicky Arundel got his wish for giraffes at the National Zoo.)
The animals were loaded onto the S.S. Robin Goodfellow in Mombasa, British East Africa (present-day Kenya), for a 52-day, 3,200-mile journey to the coast of New York. In normal conditions this would be a rough trip, especially for temperature-sensitive giraffes, which were placed in crates and forced to endure whatever the high seas threw at them. Little did anyone now that in September 1938, during the final few days of their trip, these animals bound for San Diego would encounter what was then the most devastating hurricane to hit the upper East Coast, killing nearly 700 people. (And New York would not experience one as destructive until Hurricane Sandy in 2012.) The 130-foot storm-ravaged cargo ship finally reached soggy and mangled Brooklyn on September 23.
What happened on that ship during the storm is almost too crazy to be true. Imagine waves so severe that a rhino is tossed overboard. Along with the rhino, the food for the giraffes was lost as well. The crate containing the female giraffe rolled and rolled until it shattered to pieces. She was presumed dead while every precaution was taken to protect the male. Amazingly, one of the crew saw the female giraffe move, so they covered and protected her as the storm raged on. When the storm finally abated they tried to get her out of what was left of her crate, but they were not successful. After three days of being fed pancakes (and the giraffes are indeed fed pancakes at one point in the novel), she mustered up the energy to pull herself up. However, as soon as she was upright the crew could see that her left rear ankle was severely injured.
The giraffes, probably only a few years old, were met at the Brooklyn dock by the San Diego Zoo’s head keeper Charley Smith (“Riley Jones” and “Old Man” in the novel) and city truck driver Ed Seuss (“Earl”). As soon as Smith had apprised Belle Benchley of the giraffe’s poor condition, Benchley contacted Dr. Charles Schroeder from the Bronx Zoo to assess her condition. Schroeder was a former zoo veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo and would later become the zoo’s director after Benchley retired in 1953. After examination and treatment, Schroeder deemed the giraffe worth saving and cleared her to make the trip.
But Charley Smith couldn’t start the journey to San Diego just yet. After loading the giraffes onto the truck, they headed to the U.S. Animal Quarantine Station in Athenia, New Jersey, for a federally mandated fifteen-day quarantine. The 45-mile drive from Brooklyn to the quarantine facility through flooded and debris-ridden streets, avoiding potentially low-rise overpasses, was certainly a true test of how the giraffes might handle a drive across the country, which in fact had never been done before with the towering creatures. Benchley preferred to transport the giraffes by vehicle so that they could stop as deemed necessary to nourish and rest the animals. Train travel did not allow that freedom.
By this time, the hurricane giraffes had made national headlines.
Charley Smith was certainly the man for the job. Prior to becoming head keeper at the San Diego Zoo, he had been with the circus since he was eleven years old, including sixteen-year gig as the lead keeper of the Ringling Bros. circus. Smith stayed with the giraffes during their time in quarantine, sleeping beside their stalls, nursing the female’s injury, and getting to know these “towering creatures of God’s pure Eden.” After their quarantine was complete, it was time to load the giraffes into their custom-made, heavily padded 12′ 8″ crates, which were large enough for the giraffes to lie down on piles of peat moss and straw. That was the plan, anyway, but the female giraffe had had enough of travel crates! Smith spent a few days easing her into the crate while attempting not to spook her, and getting kicked in return. They were finally able to leave quarantine on October 10, 1938. Westward ho!
In the novel West with Giraffes, Woody Nickel, is a seventeen-year-old “dirt-farm rowdy, pure as a cow pie, cunning as a wild hog” bound to escape the Texas Panhandle (and any law enforcement that might be looking for him). Orphaned during the Dust Bowl, he found his way to New York to work for a distant cousin. Determined to meet his cousin at that Brooklyn dock, he arrived only to find that his cousin was killed on board the Goodfellow during the hurricane. That is when he locks eyes with the giraffes (“Boy” and “Girl”). “…oh, those sky-high eyes of theirs. They’ve seen the world.” Upon hearing that the giraffes were bound for San Diego, Woody became determined to follow them to “the land of milk and honey” and begin a new life.
As the giraffes were rolling out of sight, Woody runs as fast as he can through the flooded streets, passing dozens of reporters, and eventually steals a motorcycle to keep up with the truck bound for the quarantine facility. While hiding out at the barn in Athenia, Woody does his own acquainting with the giraffes—sneaking into the paddock to feed them apples and onions, and checking on the injured girl. “She smelled of fur . . . and ocean . . . and sweet foreign farm dung.” For a farm boy who grew up listening to his father prattle on that animals were nothing more than food, this experience was life-changing. As the giraffes leave quarantine, Woody jumps back on the stolen motorcycle and follows them.
The events of the twelve-day cross-country drive are difficult to decipher outside of what Smith revealed to journalists and “The Boss Lady.” He did not keep a journal, so Lynda Rutledge takes creative license to fill in the blanks for us. She indeed fills our imagination with a journey full of colorful characters, tall tales, and deep secrets. Her fictional account follows the giraffe truck across the Lee Highway and illustrates the scenes of America in 1938. The country had endured a Great Depression, filling the landscape with Hoovervilles and shantytowns, WPA and CCC projects, and migrants searching for a better life. On the other side of the pond, Hitler was invading Eastern Europe, so the combined stress of world events and personal troubles were briefly assuaged by the sight of the traveling giraffes.
In the novel, Woody is able to stop chasing the truck as, after much begging and pleading, he is offered the driving job by Old Man after a falling out with Earl. With Woody behind the wheel, true to the actual events, the giraffe truck stopped regularly at auto camps under appropriate trees with the top of the crates open to let Boy and Girl reach up and browse. Another regular occurrence, this one fictional, was the sighting of a fancy green Packard, driven by a redhead full of determination. “Red” was an aspiring photojournalist trying to sell her giraffe story to Life magazine. “She had red curls all over her head, a fiery halo of raging waves she surely battled into submission every morning, and she was wearing trousers—the first woman I’d ever seen doing so in real life.” Just when Woody thought this crazy girl had stopped following them, the green Packard would come roaring into view.
One of the aspects of the novel I enjoyed the most was the depiction of Belle Benchley—sweet but tough, and highly respected. “Looks like a granny, dresses like a schoolmarm, swears like a sailor, and still charms snooty zoo galoots with their fancy educations.” Rutledge even includes reference to Benchley’s encounter with an escaped baboon. Instead of running away from the crazed primate, she stretched out her arms and caught it in mid-air and carried it back to its pen. Benchley also once caught a rattlesnake by grabbing it by the back of the head. At one point in the novel, Old Man stops at the zoo in Little Rock, Arkansas, for the night to procure some medication for Girl’s wounded leg. The director of the zoo tells Old Man, “Any friend of Mrs. Benchley is welcome here.”
It is clear from Belle Benchley’s memoir that she had a wonderful relationship with many of her keepers, particularly Charley Smith. According to Benchley, “Our relations as Boss and Man-Friday are ludicrously funny, and when he thinks he is working for me I am overjoyed. There is no real bluffing and nothing underhanded between Charley Smith and me nor is there between any of us; we are all working for one end, here in the Zoo, though perhaps by different methods. There is not a man now on the animal staff who is not in the work because he would rather be in it than anywhere else in the world, and because he feels that his contribution is important to the Zoo and to the community.” According to Ken Stott, a former San Diego Zoo curator, “. . . she was such a sweet grandmotherly type. But when she was angry she made Mount Vesuvius seem considerably less dangerous. She also had a vocabulary that she kept in reserve that the [former] circus men could understand.” The keepers came to call her “Boss.” She let them know that she admired their work, and responded to her with both respect and affection. Another indication that Benchley was loved by the zoo staff came after 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 . . . even Maggie the orangutan. “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.
Charley Smith would update Benchley via telegram during the twelve-day trek. However, from Benchley’s 1941 memoir it is obvious that Smith did not update her as much as she would have preferred. When she sent him on a collecting trip to Africa in 1940, she noted, “I am quite sure that we shall not hear much about Charley’s trip until his return. He is full of talk and wit and fun when he is around, but when away he makes me wait for news day after day until I am nearly mad from worrying. When, finally, I can bear the silence no longer, I let him know that I must have news. He has often bragged, ‘When the Missus gets tired of waiting for me to write she just burns up the wires. She telegraphs ‘WIRE ME TODAY,’ and you can bet she gets her wire.” Knowing that the female giraffe barely survived the hurricane, I can imagine Benchley was quite worried throughout Smith’s cross-country trip with the giraffes!
As the truck finally reached the San Diego Zoo entrance on October 17, 1938, the nearly unthinkable had been accomplished. Benchley recalled, “I have never seen anyone so tired and relieved as Charley Smith when he drove the great awkward truck through the zoo gate, half an hour after phoning me from a suburb. But was he proud of the two beautiful animals! He done a grand job and he knew it.” A crane was used to lower the giraffe crates out of the truck and onto terra firma. Initially they refused to leave their traveling carriers but were eventually lured out with onions. They were given names Lofty and Patches, the winning entries in a naming contest. They were instant successes, and beloved by staff and visitors alike. The accomplishment topped off what turned out to be a very successful year for the zoo. San Diego, already a world-class zoo, opened their WPA-constructed Reptile House and a zoo café. They also turned a profit for the first time in the zoo’s 22-year history.
Lofty and Patches lived at the San Diego Zoo for nearly 30 years. During that time they had seven offspring, including aptly named D-Day, born June 6, 1944. According to Benchley, they were one of the few breeding pairs in captivity.
I had read about the true story of the famous hurricane giraffes when I conducted research for my story on Belle Benchley, but I thank Lynda Rutledge for writing this work of fiction, which left me with the desire to learn more about them. I refuse to give out any spoilers about the novel, but I encourage you to pick it up. Perhaps you will fall in love with those giraffes and enjoy the adventures of Old Man and Woody as much as I did.
“Animal Trainer Called by Death.” Los Angeles Times (July 21, 1941): B16.
“Baby Giraffes from Africa Reach San Diego Zoo.” Los Angeles Times (October 27, 1938): 14.
Benchley, Belle J. 1940. My Life in a Man-Made Jungle. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.
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DeLeon, Clark. 1999. America’s First Zoostory: 125 Years at the Philadelphia Zoo. Virginia Beach: The Donning Company.
“Gawky Giraffes to Leave Athenia Today for Coast.” Paterson (N.J.) News (October 10, 1938): 35.
“Giraffes Proud Parents at the San Diego Zoo.” Los Angeles Times (August 28, 1952): 15.
“Giraffes Will Ride in Truck to California.” Miami Herald (September 25, 1938): 4.
“Hurricane Sweeps Coast.” New York Times (September 22, 1938): 1, 16–18.
Kraft, Joy W. 2010. The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. Images of America Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.
“Local Woman Names Newly Arrived Giraffes.” Escondido (CA) Times-Advocate (October 28, 1938): 6.
Official Guide Book of the San Diego Zoo. 1944. 1st ed. San Diego, CA: Zoological Society of San Diego.
———. 1947. 3rd ed. San Diego, CA: Zoological Society of San Diego.
Rutledge, Lynda. 2021. West with Giraffes. Seattle, WA: Lake Union Publishing.
San Diego Zoo. 2016. “Lofty and Patches.” San Diego Zoo: 100 Years. 2016. https://www.sandiegozoo100.org/100-animals/lofty-and-patches
San Diego Zoo Centennial Timeline: 1938. https://www.sandiegozoowildlifealliance.org/timeline/1938/1938/ (accessed 2/9/2021).
Sherr, Lynn. 1997. Tall Blondes: A Book about Giraffes. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing.
Stephenson, Lynda Rutledge. 2015. The San Diego Zoo: The First Century. Volume 1: The Founding Era, 1916–1953. Vol. 1. 2 vols. San Diego, CA: Zoological Society of San Diego.
Worley, Karen E. 2016. “100 Years of the San Diego Zoo. Part 3: War Years, 1937–1946.” ZOONOOZ, March 2016. https://issuu.com/sdzglobal/docs/march_zn