On Sunday, November 17, I said goodbye to a giant panda who has been a major part of my life for the past four years. Bei Bei, along with one of his beloved keepers and a veterinarian, departed two days later for China aboard a personalized FedEx flight to Chengdu. I have attempted to write this story several times, and each time the pain of his departure was too much to allow me to focus. I still write this through tears, which might sound silly to many, but Bei Bei is a very special bear. He has lived up to his name, which means “precious treasure” in Mandarin—he’s a local, national, and worldwide treasure for sure. And most importantly, he’s an incredible ambassador for his species.
In 2014, when I accepted a job in the DC area, one of the perks of relocating from Boston was living close to the giant pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. I had followed the birth and first year of Bao Bao remotely, and she captured my heart immediately upon arriving in DC. (Even when I was in town for my job interview, I rushed to the zoo to catch a glimpse of the celebrity before I had to catch my flight. I saw only her fuzzy legs but promised her I would return soon.) Upon my permanent arrival to the city, Bao Bao was a spunky, independent, adorable ball of fluff. She entertained her fans with her acroBAOtics and sass, tumbling around her yard, tormenting the flora. As a newcomer I knew few people in the area, so a trip to the zoo to visit the silly Miss Bao Bao always cheered me up.
A year later, Bei Bei entered the world on August 22. The event made international news; he was an instant celebrity. I viewed the birth* live on the zoo’s panda cam and followed him and his mother almost daily as I awaited the day he would be on exhibit. (I am forever grateful to the zoo for providing this 24/7 cam for people all over the globe to observe the fascinating mother-baby interaction.) Bei Bei was named a month after his birth by then–First Lady Michelle Obama and China’s counterpart, Peng Liyuan. The celebrity finally made his public debut on January 16, 2016, and as expected the Giant Panda House was swarming with visitors dying to get their first look at the fuzzy baby.
Bei Bei was an endless source of entertainment. From watching him learn to climb trees and tumble down the hill, to flashing his signature toothy grin while sleeping, almost everything he did was adorable. I’m embarrassed to admit how many photos and panda cam screenshots I’ve taken of this bear. When I was having a stressful day, or just looking for some entertainment over my lunch break, I would tune in to watch the panda cam; I would immediately feel a sense of calm and smile. Since his departure I have combed through the past four years of memories, and it has brought many smiles and tears.
In the spirit of giving thanks this week, I am thankful to this bear for changing my life.
As soon as Bei Bei made his debut, I became a regular visitor and then a member of the Friends of the National Zoo. As I made frequent weekend visits to the zoo, I naturally fell in love with many of the other animals and began supporting several different conservation efforts. Now, not only am I a giant panda lover, I can call myself a zoo supporter. I thank Bei Bei for introducing me to his wonderful neighbors. Of course, if I hadn’t become a fan of the zoo, I would not have started this blog with the determination to tell many stories about the amazing people and animals that have changed the field.
My first visit with Bei Bei in 2016. He captured my heart immediately.
Bei Bei also introduced me to wonderful people who have enriched my life in so many ways. I now have a group of friends (the Zoo Crew) that I cannot wait to meet at our “happy place” nearly every weekend. I also always anticipate the amazing photos of DC Zoo Walks to make my entire week much brighter. Sandy Gertsley’s videos capture Bei Bei’s life in such memorable ways. The humor of Marcelo Pacheco, the mastermind of the Famous Babies Club on Twitter (Bei Bei is naturally president of the club) keeps me laughing constantly. (Marcelo and his wife, who reside in Chile, are two of the most charming people, and I’m so fortunate to call them my good friends.) BooBoo Panda’s super-creative and hilarious videos have also provided comic relief. It’s amazing how many fun, kind, creative people I have met over the past four years.
I also give thanks to Mei Xiang and Tian Tian for producing three wonderful cubs for the District and for China. The city’s first panda couple (Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing) who arrived in 1972** never had a surviving cub, so what Mei and Tian have given us is truly a miracle, thanks also in part to the amazing work and care of the veterinarians and panda keepers. We need to continue to show Mei and Tian our love, even though the absence of Bei Bei has left an emptiness in the panda yards. We don’t know how much longer we have to enjoy Mama and Papa (the zoo’s contract with China will be up for negotiation at the end of 2020), so I urge everyone to take advantage of these amazing bears while they’re here. We are so incredibly fortunate to have them in DC.
On a larger scale, I also urge all of the Bei Bei fans to continue to support the National Zoo. You might be tempted not to renew your membership since the celebrity bear is no longer here, but the zoo needs us. The gorillas need a new outdoor climbing structure, the bird house under construction still isn’t yet fully funded, and several of the buildings are becoming outdated. For the benefit of the animals, please continue your FONZ membership and support the zoo’s endeavors. I also want to continue to see all of your smiling faces when I visit!
So, thank you, adorable, happy, fuzzbutt bear for enriching my life, for leading me to other amazing people at a time I needed to find my place in the city, and for creating a lifetime of memories. I look forward to following you in the next chapter of your life and hope that the future is full of the next generation of Bei Beis. You are a precious treasure. Thank you, Bei Bei.
Some favorite photos I’ve taken of Bei Bei over the past four years:
*There were actually two births, but Bei Bei’s twin, the smaller of the two, died four days later.
**In 1972 my father completed his U.S. Navy training in Bethesda, Md. I would love to think he made a trip to the zoo to visit the new arrivals!
During my interview with Corbin Maxey, he asked me what surprises have popped up in my zoo history research. My answer was not included in the final release of the interview; I answered that I was surprised about the extreme difficulty of caring for penguins in captivity until the late 1960s—too sad a topic to include in a fun podcast. Corbin told me that his zoo history surprise was that the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium exhibited an Amazon river dolphin (a species often called pink dolphin, or boto) for many years. River dolphins are a species rarely found in captivity, so I assured Corbin that I would further investigate this animal!
When we think of dolphins, we usually conjure up images of Flipper and the playful saltwater variety. Their freshwater cousins, however, are rarely portrayed in popular culture. River dolphins are smaller in order to propel through shallower water. They have tiny eyes, very flexible necks, longer snouts, and strong sonar to help snag fast-moving prey in muddy water. They are mostly concentrated in South American rivers, particularly the Amazon and Oronoco basins—with other species of river dolphins located in Asia (China and India). They are extremely rare in captivity even today, with only a few on exhibit around the world, mainly due to high mortality, aggression, and level of difficulty in training. Between 100 and 140 Amazon river dolphins were brought to the United States aquariums between the 1950s and the mid-1970s, and 90 percent of them lived only one to five years. Given this gram statistic, the story of Chuckles is an extremely remarkable one.
When Pittsburgh’s AquaZoo opened in 1967, it was the second largest aquarium in the country. To fill the tanks with attractive specimens, zoologists set out on a three-week “aquafari” to the upper Amazon River of Columbia. They returned to Pittsburgh in June 1967 via C-46 airplane with 11,000 pounds of fish, reptiles, and amphibians; 500 excited fans greeted them at the airport, along with an orchestra playing South American music and a motorcade waiting to escort the new Pittsburgh residents to their home.
The stars of the aquarium were predicted to be three Amazon river dolphins—two adults (one very pregnant) and a baby. Sadly, both adults died a few days after arriving at the aquarium, one of pneumonia and the other of an infection stemming from a harpoon wound. (The only other immediate deaths reported were three red-tailed catfish, so the overall fatality rate of the large shipment was quite low.) The baby, a six-month-old named Pinky, seemed to thrive initially—eating well, taking vitamins, and enjoying the company of her human keepers. Keeping this baby alive, the first baby to survive in captivity, was an all-hands-on-deck affair, with pathologists and dieticians from the local Magee-Womens Hospital assisting. After Pinky’s mother passed away, dieticians were able to obtain samples of her milk so that they could learn to simulate the high-fat, low-sugar formula that she required.
While Pinky was soaking up the attention, in August zoo officials acquired three companion Amazon porpoises, two females and a male, secured by fishermen a few weeks after the initial aquafari trip. Two dozen reporters were on hand for the initial introduction to their pool. Pinky was kept in a separate pool from the adults as she was received around-the-clock care. The behaviors of these creatures had not yet been understood, so they were not risking the larger adults hurting or killing the young dolphin.
The AquaZoo opened its doors on October 1, 1967. Aside from the porpoises, visitors were awed by the penguins, sharks, otters, electric eels, and rare specimens such as the tiger-fish (more vicious than piranhas) and South American gar. Zoo staff were quite proud of the health of the animals and smooth operation of the filtration systems of the $1.6 million facility. One newspaper article called the Amazon exhibit the only one of its kind in the world. The exhibit resembled their natural environment as closely as possible, and the thousands of visitors who showed up for the opening walked away super impressed.
Twelve days after the grand opening, baby Pinky’s fragile life ended. She had been dealing with an eye infection, but her care team suspected that pneumonia is what ultimately killed her. In 1970, seven more Amazon river dolphins arrived. Then in 1972 three Amazon River dolphins died after emergency digestive surgery at Magee-Womens Hospital. They had swallowed coins and other debris (even a rail spike) that had been thrown into their tank. Eventually, only one dolphin remained: Chuckles.
By the time Chuckles arrived in 1970, the zoo (in Pittsburgh as well as other zoos) had learned a very important lesson in keeping river dolphins healthy in captivity. Their natural environment is not a vast ocean but a shallower body of water. In a deep tank, the river dolphins, which do not float, were expending a tremendous amount of energy attempting to rise to the surface for air and had difficulty sleeping in the deep water. The stress on the body was making them more susceptible to illness. Chuckles, at 6′3″ and over 200 lbs, was moved to a much smaller, four-foot-deep tank with a sloped area where he could beach himself. The smaller living space upset visitors but no doubt contributed to his record-breaking longevity. Amazon river dolphins are also mostly solitary in the wild, so his single lifestyle also kept his stress level lower but made him a target of cries that he looked lonely.
By the 1980s Chuckles was only one of two Amazon river dolphins living in U.S. aquariums—the other was Buster in Niagara Falls, New York. After Buster passed away around 1987, Chuckles was the only living freshwater dolphin in captivity in North America. He had outlived them all.
Although his species was generally believed to be less intelligent than their ocean-dwelling cousins, Chuckles proved extremely smart, and keepers started to notice that he would invite interaction with humans. He engaged visitors, particularly children, in play, and his care team would occasionally swim with him. After 15 years in captivity, it was time to use this rare opportunity to formally study him.
In 1982, when Chuckles developed a severe case of gout around his pectoral fins and required treatment, trainers started entering his pool and interacting with him on a more routine physical level. That April, after a University of Pittsburgh student who worked with Chuckles as well as marine dolphins noticed his aptitude for learning, thirteen trainers became involved in an intensive training program (23 other trainers were on a waiting list). Throughout his daily regimen, Chuckles learned more than a dozen routines, including tossing and fetching balls and frisbees, swimming through hoops (freshwater dolphins do not jump like the ocean dwellers), shaking with his fin, rolling over, and jump-hugging humans. With thirteen of them, not every trainer gave the dolphin a command in the exact same way, but he figured out what they wanted anyway. He was also a perfectionist, often re-performing a behavior if he wasn’t pleased with the initial attempt. AquaZoo director Randy Goodlett noted that Chuckles’ mental well-being had improved dramatically as well. “Before the training Chuckles was very blasé, just moping around in his tank. Now, he’s like a puppy. He looks forward to the training sessions.” By the time of his death, he knew over 30 behaviors.
Amazon river dolphins are born gray and tend to become pinker in color as they get older, or as they become more excited. Perhaps a trick, perhaps not, Chuckles appeared to be able to change his coloring from pink to gray at will. “Chuckles can go pink. He can go gray. He can go so gray that there’s no pink on his body. He can be slightly pink. He can be brilliant pink. If they do have emotions, it might be tied into that. It might be vascular. It could be diet and old age,” Goodlett suggested.
Chuckles was well trained, but that didn’t mean he was always on his best behavior. In 1990 he bit a zoo volunteer while she rubbed his belly with a brush. He was in “reproductive stage,” a time when aggressive behavior tends to peak in males. The volunteer required stitches on her finger, but claimed that Chuckles was still her buddy and would continue to work with him. The volunteer eventually sought $50,000 in damages from the zoo and won, but in 1996 the decision was overturned; the zoo was ultimately found not at fault. Chuckles also bit one of his trainers on the hand and leg during a training session in 1993, again while he was in reproductive stage. Three years later he bit a female visitor who, attempting to pet him, stuck her hand in his exhibit though a screen barrier while shouting his name. The zoo had to remind visitors that Chuckles was not dangerous, but he was a wild animal.
Every single trainer was bit. I was bit. He got me good a couple of times on the fingers. —Randy Goodlett, AquaZoo director
Chuckles’ popularity helped bring awareness to the plight of his species in the wild. In 1986, a group of Pittsburgh conservationists, as part of the California-based “Pink Dolphin Project,” journeyed to Brazil to help save around 150 Amazon river dolphins that had become trapped in dammed areas that were drained for irrigation during the dry season. As their situation became dire, the dolphins were transported to lakes and undammed streams. (The previous year, 200 river dolphins perished from starvation and sun exposure during the dry season.) To prepare for the trip, volunteers studied Chuckles to learn how to care for and handle the species for safe transport. The efforts to save the trapped river dolphins became a yearly project.
Chuckles lived out his final few years in a new home. In 2000, a newly renovated $17 million AquaZoo was opened (and renamed PPG Aquarium). The entire space was twice the size as the former iteration, and Chuckles was transferred to a customized pool five times the size of his previous home.
Chuckles died two years later on February 20, 2002, at the elderly age of 34. (Buster, the oldest Amazon river dolphin in captivity prior to him lived to the age of 23, so Chuckles smashed the longevity record for his species.) Pittsburgh had lost its smiley treasure. A makeshift memorial of flowers, photos, letters, and other mementos adorned the aquarium. One of his trainers added her whistle. Asked if the zoo would replace him with another river dolphin, a spokesperson said they would not. He was irreplaceable—their miracle dolphin.
On a wintry day our two sons, then about 6 and 10, and I were alone in front of Chuckles’ tank when he threw a ball out to us. We immediately threw it back, and this catch game went on for some minutes to the delight of the kids. We just wanted to describe our experience, which shows how intelligent and playful Chuckles was. —Radmilla Raikow, Pittsburgh resident (“Mourning Chuckles.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 23, 2002)
Today only three Amazon river dolphins exist in captivity—one each at Acuario de Valencia (Venezuela), Zoologico de Guistochoca (Peru), and the Duisburg Zoo (Germany). The Dallas World Aquarium attempted to acquire them in the mid-1990s as the main attraction of their new facility. However, the plan to capture them was strongly opposed by citizens, federal agencies, and advocacy groups and ultimately abandoned. In the wild, the Amazon river dolphin population is considered endangered and declining due to habitat loss (deforestation), commercial fishing, hydroelectric dam construction, and toxic mercury from gold mining. The largest effort to conserve the species occurred in 2012 when Bolivian president Evo Morales signed a law that banned fishing river dolphins and declared the species a national treasure; Brazil enacted a similar law in 2015. Additionally, the organization World Animal Protection has created a “Boto Guardians” program to help educate locals and enforce fishing laws. The Guardians number 300,000, and an estimated 1,600 river dolphins have been saved from illegal hunting through the organization’s efforts.
Bonar, Christopher et al. “A Retrospective Study of Pathologic Findings in the Amazon and Orinoco River Dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) in Captivity.” Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine 38 (2007): 177–91.
Bradley-Steck, Tara. “Rare Dolphin Taught at Pa. Zoo.” Philadelphia Inquirer (March 7, 1985): B18.
———. “Conservation Group Trying to Rescue Amazon River Dolphins.” The Daily Item (Sunbury, Pa.) (July 23, 1986): 25.
Butler, Ann. “Chuckles: Aqua Zoo’s dolphin is teaching trainers.” The Pittsburgh Press (January 7, 1985): C1.
I had the extreme privilege of talking with Corbin Maxey about my zoo history writing project. You might have seen him on NBC’s “The Today Show” wielding his exotic ambassador animals and laughing with the hosts. Corbin is a lot of fun to talk to, and his energy about animals and conservation is truly infectious. I hope you enjoy the interview, and please share with anyone who might be interested!
Also please consider subscribing to his podcast “Animals to the Max.” He has interviewed an amazing list of personalities who are passionate about animals. You can listen for free on iTunes, Stitcher, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts.
“Ambika! I remember visiting her as a young girl!” an Elephant House patron exclaimed to keeper Kayleigh Sullivan. Kayleigh, smiling, said that she hears that frequently from longtime DC residents. Ambika is certainly a city treasure—at 71 she is the third oldest Asian elephant in North America. (The record for longevity of an Asian elephant in captivity is 86 years.) She has been a DC resident since the Kennedy administration!
Born around 1948 in the wild, she was captured in India’s Coorg Forest when she was about eight years old. After her capture, she worked as a logging elephant, carrying gigantic felled trees through the forest with her trunk for two years before she was gifted to the National Zoo.
It is unclear as to how Ambika was the lucky elephant chosen to be rescued from brutal logging work, but after a 47-day journey on the S.S. Steel Architect, she arrived in the United States on April 14, 1961 (a few months after the arrival of celebrity white tiger Mohini). She was presented as a gift from the children of India and the Maharaja of Mysore to the children of America. At the time of her arrival she was about nine years old, 9 1/2 feet tall, and 2,800 pounds.
Before settling into her new home, however, Ambika toured the United States through the Share Your Birthday Foundation of Philadelphia, making appearances at schools and playgrounds to promote international goodwill among children. After her tour, Ambika (meaning “gift from heaven”) was ceremoniously presented to the National Zoo on January 5, 1962. She settled in nicely with another young female Indian elephant named Shanti (not the current Shanthi). The zoo also housed a feisty female African elephant named Nancy and a male African forest elephant named Dzimbo.
When Ambika arrived in DC, it was believed that she was pregnant. She had been bred in India shortly before leaving the country, so local DC newspapers kept the locals apprised as electrocardiogram tests (to detect a fetal heartbeat) were administered by Georgetown University. In late 1962 the word started to spread—not pregnant. Zoo officials were bummed by the news. A birth would have been only the third elephant to be born in the U.S. in the last 44 years.
Ambika is a very well-mannered and friendly lady. She often sports a smile. She is the peacemaker of the herd, making sure that everyone gets along. Her keepers used to wade into the pool with her to give her baths. They used to ride on her back. They used to ride her in the pool! One keeper would even lie down on the ground in Ambika’s path to demonstrate the trust they have developed with her. Today, her keepers follow protected contact regulations, meaning a barrier separates them and the elephants at all times. She is also known for her fun sense of humor—often silently sneaking up on her keepers, earning her the nickname “Sneaky Biki.” Keeper Kayleigh notes that another quirk is she likes to flap her ears against your face when you’re working with her. “She gives us her silly smile as she does it.”
Ambika—with her distinctive pink trunk, her social nature, her particular habits, and her signature smile—is truly a gift. —Cindy Han, Zoogoer magazine
Ambika’s life at the National Zoo had been pretty stable, that is, until 1976 when her best friend Shanti passed away at the age of 32. Just a few weeks later, the year-old and current resident Shanthi arrived from Sri Lanka. And to this day, Ambika and Shanthi—The Golden Girls—can often be seen standing side by side in the elephant yard. Ambika has not had any of her own calves, but Shanthi gave birth to Kumari in 1993 (but succumbed to the deadly EEHV virus in 1995) and again in 2001 to male Kandula. Kandula lived with Ambika and Shanthi until his move to his current home at Oklahoma City Zoo in 2015. Ambika is quite cautious of change, but when the calves arrived she played the role of “auntie” with grace.
Ambika can indeed claim acting on her résumé: she became a star in the June 1982 when she and Shanthi appeared on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It was a rainy day when Fred Rogers visited the zoo, but the filming seemed to go well until Rogers climbed on Ambika’s back. According to the zoo’s newsletter, The Torch, “As soon as Mr. Rogers was perched atop Ambika’s back, she decided she wanted a bath and lumbered eagerly towards the pool. While zookeepers headed her off, ‘little’ (4,000 pound) Shanthi’s curiosity was piqued by the cameraman and his fascinating equipment. As she set off to investigate, our fleet-of-foot staffers quickly foiled a farcical finale.” The episode aired on June 4, 1982. (Spoiler alert: He also feeds the giant pandas.)
Despite her advanced age, Ambika is a healthy girl, which is attributed in great part to the wonderful care she receives on a daily basis. As elephant curator Tony Barthel humorously describes Ambika, “I tend to think of [her] as that 100-year-old person who still drives around and maybe uses the internet.” Keepers say her bloodwork always looks great. She and Shanthi (who is 44 years old) receive daily treatments for arthritis (supplements as well as foot and joint treatments). Elephants go through six sets of teeth during their lifetime, and Ambika is on her last set, so dental care is important. To help her chew her hay, her care team chops it up for her. (Elephants in the wild would starve to death after losing that last set of teeth, which is one reason why elephants are able to live longer in captivity.) Her only major health scare came in 2007 when she demonstrated symptoms of abdominal discomfort. A blood clot the size of a basketball was detected in her uterus, but with immediate treatment she made a full recovery.
When talking to the keepers, it is clear that they truly adore Ambika. With her increasing age, she doesn’t follow commands as well as she used to and might present the wrong body part. Keeper Kayleigh says, “We let her get away with it, because it’s Beeks.” Kayleigh also mentioned that age has not hindered Ambika’s love for water. “She loves to swim, and she will not hesitate to go all the way under. And sometimes you’ll see her floating on her side—it must feel good to take pressure off those arthritic legs and feet.”
When asked to describe our 70-year-old Asian elephant Ambika, keepers called these monikers to mind: friend, mentor, comedian, research partner and colleague. —National Zoo Facebook page
With a complete renovation of the elephant space in 2013, the zoo was prepared to increase the size of their herd and reinstate their breeding program. Ambika’s circle of friends has more than doubled in size. Arrivals since 2013 include Bozie (from Baton Rouge Zoo), the “Calgary Zoo trio” of Kamala, Maharani, and Swarna, and most recently “Big Spike,” also from Calgary. (Maharani and Spike have a recommendation to breed from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan, so we are all hoping for a baby in the next few years!)
A wonderful opportunity to meet Ambika and her friends is World Elephant Day on Monday, August 12. Listen to keepers talk about their daily routine with these amazing animals, attend special demonstrations, and learn how you can do your part to help save this endangered species.
Last year, Ambika’s birthday (the actual day of which is unknown) was celebrated on World Elephant Day, but according her care team, look for a special birthday celebration around the first of the year in 2020. Will she receive 20 cakes again? Stay tuned!
ID help: How do you spot 7,200-lb Ambika out of the herd of seven elephants? She has an extremely long trunk that is lighter pink in color at the end. She likes to tuck a piece of hay in the corner of her mouth, and she is often hanging out with the larger (9,000 lb.) Shanthi and Bozie, who has two prominent domes on the top of her head.
“Asian Elephant Is Not Pregnant, Zookeepers Find.” Washington Evening Star, January 15, 1963.
“‘Birthday’ Elephant Arrives at Zoo.” Washington Post, January 5, 1962: A2.
Casey, Phil. “Cleanup Time for Elephants.” Washington Post, July 16, 1968: B1.
Gabbett, Harry. “People-to-People Elephant Arrives from India in ‘Interesting’ Condition.” Washington Post, April 15, 1961: A1, C1.
Galloway, Marie. “Pachyderm Pals; at the Zoo, Ambika, Shanthi, Kandula and Marie Care for One Another.” Washington Post, February 25, 2007: B8.
“Gift Elephant from India Gets VIP Ceremony.” Washington Evening Star, January 5, 1962.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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.
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.
I struggled writing this piece, but I have to keep in mind that many stories from zoos past are not uplifting. It only highlights how much zoos have changed their focus from animal displays to research, welfare, and conservation of the animals. It also serves as a reminder about how far humans have come with advances in medicine. Zoos are a much better place because of these improvements. —Karie
Some animals that you surprisingly will not find at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo are the extremely popular penguins. After learning that the zoo used to have these affable birds, I had to do some digging into their DC story.
What I found was that during the time that the zoo featured penguins, they were a difficult beast to manage in captivity for a multitude of reasons. Relationship status: It’s Complicated.
In his book published in 1930, National Zoo Director William Mann noted, “We have never had much success with penguins. Of six Humboldt’s penguins (Spheniscus humboldti) from Chile, none lived longer than two months, as they were all affected with aspergillosis, a fungus disease of the lungs, when they arrived, and had lived for a week or so previously on an unnatural diet of bread and water. A rock-hopper penguin (Catarrhactespachyrhynchus) from southern New Zealand lived for one year and five months” (234–35). One of the rockhoppers died from injuries in a fight with two other birds. (The Washington Post article about the incident blamed the dreadful summer heat for the fight.) Additionally, penguins are susceptible to heat stroke and bacterial infections. Their living environment needs to be climate controlled with excellent ventilation systems. Care during transport to the zoo and upon arrival is vital (dehydration and heat exhaustion are common). Unaccustomed to eating dead fish, many have to be force-fed at first. In a nutshell, they are a very high maintenance bird.
These hazards did not stop the zoo from trying, however.
In 1933 the zoo acquired four Galapagos penguins from the Hancock Pacific-Galapagos Expedition, but the next year they were not listed in the zoo’s collection of animals. One can only assume that they succumbed to aspergillosis or other illnesses that plagued so many captive penguins. That same year the zoo also attempted to maintain a collection of African (jackass) penguins. Over the next year, sadly, the zoo would lose six of them to illness.
Still, the zoo kept trying. In late 1936 the National Zoo acquired six more African penguins after completing a major addition to the bird house, which included an improved refrigeration system and wading pool.
In 1938, as Hitler was invading countries in Europe, two of the birds provided DC with a much-needed diversion from the growing unease on the world stage. Penguin couple Millie and Moe produced two eggs—the first to ever appear at the zoo. And according to the Washington Post, no African penguin had been hatched successfully in any American zoo. Millie and Moe took turns incubating the eggs around the clock, while the city had to wait a month for the outcome. Meanwhile, another penguin couple began building a nest, as crowds poured into the bird house to catch a glimpse of the action.
After forty days (March 12), one of the eggs finally hatched—a “tiny clump of fuzz,” creating lots of buzz. The bird house was packed with photographers and reporters, along with DC residents trying to catch a glimpse of history. A local radio deejay even broadcasted the chick’s every move over the airwaves. The chick (whose gender was unknown) was named Malcolm, after Malcolm Davis, the bird keeper that spent most of his time attending to the needs of the parents-to-be. Over 20,000 visitors flocked to the bird house to catch a peek at the new arrival. (It’s not a surprise that the zoo topped 3 million visitors that year.)
Behold the Ides of March—the second egg hatched on March 15. The chick, named “Minnie,” gave the zoo another reason to cheer.
Less than a week later, first-born chick, Malcolm, died. On the positive side, the zoo’s director Mann noted, this birth was a boon to science, and the chick would be given to the National Museum for research and display. Then, on April 3, the only African penguin chick in captivity, Millie, died. Millie was transferred to the National Museum to be put on display with Malcolm. The zoo was devastated, but they remained optimistic that their two breeding couples would continue to hatch eggs. In fact, a month later, Mollie laid two more eggs. They, however, never hatched. The other penguin couple, Ada and Tux, weren’t having success, either.
The next year, in June 1939, Mollie again gave the zoo a shot of optimism. One egg hatched, and the little chick seemed to be thriving. At 24 days old, little Minnie penguin made his/her debut. Again, the National Zoo made history—Minnie was the oldest penguin chick to survive at the time. Sadly, the streak ended at 37 days. Minnie passed away, leaving the zoo officials scratching their heads. There was a reason that penguin births were so rare in captivity. But why? To add to the mystery, mother penguin Mollie died suddenly on August 15. The zoo could only speculate that she died of a broken heart after losing her baby (and further posited by the autopsy). In tribute to Mollie, the Washington Post called her the penguin that would not quit. She made history. She was the matriarch of the zoo’s favorite family.
(Side note: This was not the only death from a broken heart the zoo experienced in the penguin colony. In 1947, the zoo’s emperor penguin died after his female friend passed away. He refused to eat, had to be force-fed, and eventually collapsed and died in his enclosure.)
Even after the failure to raise a penguin chick to maturity, the zoo continued to nurture its penguin colony, making sure that the adults stayed healthy and thrived. One question: should they try to find Moe a new mate?
Another difficulty in keeping penguins, for most zoos, is the cost to transport them from their native areas. The National Zoo, however, has always benefited from DC’s government ties—foreign dignitaries would gift U.S. presidents with various animals from their native countries, which would then be sent to the zoo; and animals that had been subject of government/military studies would also be sent to SNZ to retire (see, for example, Ham the Astrochimp). Procuring penguins was also made easier by these ties. One example was a big reason why the National Zoo were able to exhibit penguins: five U.S. Navy expeditions to Antarctica.
Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s expeditions to Antarctica had previously brought back penguins for other zoos (namely Philadelphia and Chicago), so Director William Mann made a formal request on behalf of the National Zoo beginning in 1939. Malcolm Davis, head keeper in the bird house, accompanied Byrd on the expeditions.
After the first expedition, Davis returned to DC with one emperor penguin and 13 Adélie penguins. The emperor, according to the New York Times, was the first of its penguin species to be brought north of the equator. The 50-pound gorgeous and stately bird (named Dugan) was immediately the talk of the town. Unfortunately, in May 1940, a few months after his arrival, Dugan succumbed to a fungal infection in his throat, which the zoo at the time could not treat.
The next year, in May 1941, the second Antarctic expedition brought back 3 emperor and 4 gentoo penguins. Director Mann declared that the National Zoo now had “the best penguin collection.”
One has to but to walk through the 176 acres of natural parkland set aside for the Zoo and see the animals to understand why Washingtonians consider the hatching of penguin eggs of more interest than a clash on Capitol Hill…. A free show presents the world’s most remarkable birdhouse in any zoo….
—Washington Post, December 28, 1941
Little did they realize that seven months later the country would be at war, during which time very few animal collecting trips occurred. The Smithsonian Annual Reports for the years 1944–46 list 3 emperor, 4 jackass, 2 Humboldt penguins in the collection, so clearly there was a bit of fluctuation in the bird house in the 1940s. (And I’m not sure what happened to the 13 Adélie penguins from the Byrd expedition.)
In 1947, the third Byrd expedition (Operation Windmill) brought four different species of penguins to the National Zoo: emperor, macaroni, Adélie, and rockhoppers. (The New York Times reported that a total of 57 penguins were sent to New York as part of the expedition.) In the Washington Post, Mann touted the collection of six different species, which were the most popular exhibit at the zoo and the “finest penguin collection in the U.S.” He enthusiastically pointed out that between 30,000 and 60,000 people visit the zoo on weekends, and many of them head straight to the bird house.
Some of the penguins from Operation Windmill almost didn’t make it to the zoo. On April 14, 1947, eight of the birds decided to do some sightseeing when their crate broke open while being lowered from the ship. They jumped into the Anacostia River, rolling around on their backs and enjoying their freedom. Zoo officials feared that the dangerous levels of water pollution would kill them. Harbor police were able to capture five of them within a few hours. One was found four days later twenty miles away in Maryland. The other two were presumably never found.
The zoo again topped 3 million visitors the next year (and the few years that followed), and once again more penguins arrived: 4 king, 8 emperor, and 4 Adélie collected by another Antarctic expedition. A Washington Post article mentioned that the emperor penguins replaced the dozen from the previous expedition—all of which had died of respiratory disease. The National Zoo was still the only zoo to house emperors in their collection. The jackass and Humboldt penguins seemed to thrive the best in DC.
The zoo wasn’t having any luck with penguin births, either. One Humboldt chick hatched in 1948, but it lived only a few days. Director Mann believed that the DC climate made it impossible to them to survive.
At this point, all of the emperor penguins collected by the Antarctic expeditions had died. A fourth expedition brought back seven of these penguins (along with 4 Adélie) in March 1955 to give it another try. (King and Humboldt penguins also arrived that year from other sources, and a few other emperors went to the Bronx Zoo to be displayed in their new state-of-the-art penguin house.) The zoo worked hard to prevent the respiratory disease that was killing the birds—improved cleaning methods and better air filtration, lowered temperature and humidity levels. Still, the birds struggled to thrive. According to the 1955 Annual Report, researchers at the National Institute of Health had isolated the organism and were working to find a chemical or bacterial agent that would eradicate it.
By early July, all of the emperor penguins had died, all from aspergillosis, and only one of the Adélie was still living. Now the Bronx Zoo was the only zoo in the country to exhibit the large emperors, and zoos in Tokyo and Switzerland were the only other places in the world to house them. Mann lamented, “We had the best doctors we could get. We tried to filter the air—we tried everything.” He noted that the two in the Bronx were thriving—one had even laid an egg—so it was a true mystery as to why those in DC did not live. A Washington Post reporter pleaded with the zoo to end the quest for emperor penguins after another expedition was requested by head keeper Davis. However, the plea was ignored, and three more emperors were brought to the bird house. All died within five days from the same fungal disease. According to the 1956 Annual Report, the birds were treated with two medications via a nebulizer, but the pathology report suggested that had the treatment been started earlier it would have been effective. The 1957 Annual Report also detailed a research effort to study the fungal infection by a biologist (Dr. William Sladen) at Johns Hopkins University and scientist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Research Laboratory in Patuxent, Maryland. New treatments were being developed, and much more had been learned about the disease, but a cure still had not been developed.
(Side note: To this day, SeaWorld San Diego has been the only North American institution to house a successful captive emperor penguin colony. Since 1980, more than twenty emperor penguins have been hatched and raised there.)
In 1958 the research efforts intensified, as the zoo acquired 12 Adélie penguins by way of the U.S. Navy’s Operation Deep Freeze for the primary purpose of studying the disease. The birds arrived in February, and by the end of June, four were living. A new antifungal drug, called a “miracle drug” by the Baltimore Sun, had been administered for the first time that year, “with some degree of success,” according to the Annual Report (174).
The 1960s seemed to welcome a turning point for penguins in captivity. Researchers were finally starting to understand and better treat the dreaded aspergillosis. Zoos were collaborating on care and treatment of their penguin collections (see Davis 1967). Exhibit spaces and hygiene practices were improving. In 1961, the Baltimore Zoo acquired 10 Humboldt penguins—after attempting to house penguins a few times in the 1950s. Their proximity to Dr. Sladen at Johns Hopkins undoubtedly gave them confidence to manage a successful penguin colony. On the emperor penguin front, the Aalborg Zoo in Denmark received more than ten emperor penguins in 1963, one of which lived until 1983. (However, they did not have a chick that hatched and survived more than a few days.)
At the National Zoo, the 1960s seemed to mark the end of the penguin collection. Head keeper Malcolm Davis retired in July 1960, and in December 1962 the remaining five penguins in the collection were sent to Saint Louis Zoo while the bird house underwent major renovations.
The renovations took several years to complete. Finally, in March 1966, the beginning of construction on the new multi-climate building was announced. (We can only speculate that construction was delayed due to budget constraints.) The sole indication that the building was complete the next year is a photo of penguins enjoying their new digs, courtesy of the Washington Post. The 1968 Annual Report mentioned the purchase of macaroni penguins, which arrived in May 1968.
That is where the story mysteriously ends. After 1968, the local newspapers and Smithsonian annual reports do not mention any presence of penguins at the National Zoo. I can only speculate that without a penguin expert on staff, the zoo decided to focus their efforts on other species and sent any remaining penguins to the Baltimore Zoo. An article from July 1987 indicated that then-director Michael Robinson had a vision to introduce penguins by the year 2000, but that obviously never became a reality.
Although it’s unfortunate that the National Zoo does not feature penguins, one only has to travel up to Baltimore to enjoy the largest African penguin colony in the country. In fact, over 1,000 chicks have hatched there. The impressive exhibit is well worth the trip, and I highly recommend purchasing a penguin encounter for the rare opportunity to interact with (and pet!) their ambassador penguins.
UPDATE (9/3/2019): According to a few sources close to the zoo on social media, a bout of avian malaria is what ended the penguin program at the National Zoo. I was able to verify that there was indeed an outbreak among SNZ’s macaroni penguins in 1969 (“Blood parasites of penguins: a critical review”).
“Valuable Penguin Killed in Fight with Zoo Mates.” Washington Post, July 27, 1926: 2.
Mann, William M. Wild Animals In and Out of the Zoo. Volume 6 of the Smithsonian Scientific Series. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1930.