Belle Benchley, World’s First Female Zoo Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

San Diego Zoo: The Benchley Years

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


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

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

Belle Jennings Benchley (1882–1973). San Diego History Center.

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

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

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

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

San Diego Zoo. Centennial Timeline.

San Diego Zoo. Timeline of Events.

Stephenson, Lynda Rutledge. The San Diego Zoo: The First Century. Volume 1: The Founding Era, 1916–1953. San Diego: The Zoological Society of San Diego, 2015.

Wegeforth, Harry, and Neil Morgan. It Began with a Roar!: The Beginning of the World-Famous San Diego Zoo. San Diego: Pioneer Printers, 1953.

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

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

Women’s Museum of California. San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame Inductees, 2007.

Worley, Karen E. “100 Years of the San Diego Zoo.” ZOONOOZ (November 2015), pp. 8-11.

Worley, Karen E. “100 Years of the San Diego Zoo. Part 2: Tenacity, 1927-1936.” ZOONOOZ (January 2016), pp. 20-22.

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

Dr. Harry Wegeforth, Two Stubborn Elephants, and One Feisty Diablo

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.

Dr. Harry M. Wegeforth. Photo: San Diego Zoo

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.

The cages along Park Blvd. in San Diego, which were part of the Panama–California Exposition. Photo: Culture Trip

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.)

Caesar the Kodiak bear. Photo: San Diego Zoo

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!

Dr. Wegeforth aboard an elephant with two trainers observing at the San Diego Zoo, circa 1923. Photo: San Diego Historical Society

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.

Force-feeding Diablo. Photo: San Diego Zoo

So successful were the feedings that they became a nationally known ongoing zoo event—about every 90 days—until Diablo’s death in 1928. More elements of entertainment were thrown in so that Diablo was only part of the spectacle. For example, one of the most popular sideshows was Mike the well-dressed orangutan who always made a grand entrance in an automobile.

Whenever anybody started to knock my plans, I just kept right on boosting them. The idea of failure never entered my mind.  —Harry Wegeforth, diary entry

Dr. Harry Wegeforth continued as president of the San Diego Zoo until his death in 1941. He left an indelible legacy there, all while maintaining his full-time private medical practice. He made sure that the zoo was one of the first to adopt modern cageless, expansive enclosures for the animals. He also founded the precursor to today’s Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) in 1924 to encourage zoos to collaborate and educate each other. Also known as a master negotiator and trader of animals, in 1925 he negotiated a deal to bring to San Diego the first koalas outside Australia. (To this day the zoo houses the largest colony of koalas outside Australia.) In 1927 his interest in disease in wild animals led to the establishment of the Hospital and Biological Research Institute, which employed the zoo’s first official veterinarian. He clearly planted the seed for the San Diego Zoo to flourish into the extremely well-respected institution that it is today.

But perhaps one of his best decisions was the hiring of Belle Benchley as his secretary in 1925 and in 1927 as the director of the zoo—the world’s first female zoo director, and the subject of my next story.




Amero, Richard W. “The San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park.” Chapter 23 of Balboa Park History.

San Diego Zoo Timeline:

Stephenson, Lynda Rutledge. The San Diego Zoo: The First Century. Volume 1: The Founding Era, 1916–1953. San Diego: The Zoological Society of San Diego, 2015.

Wegeforth, Harry, and Neil Morgan. It Began with a Roar!: The Beginning of the World-Famous San Diego Zoo. San Diego: Pioneer Printers, 1953.

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