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Celebrating 100 Years of the San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo

Celebrating 100 Years of the San Diego Zoo

by Darlene G. Davies


The San Diego Zoo began with a roar, the roar of a lion that was heard by Dr. Harry Wegeforth and his brother, Paul, as they drove alongside Balboa Park. As the story goes, Harry said, “Wouldn’t it be splendid if San Diego had a zoo! You know, I think I’ll start one.” That was on September 16, 1916, during the second year of the Panama-California International Exposition, and the motivation to do big things must have been mighty because the first meeting to form the Zoological Society of San Diego was held October 2, only half a month later. The San Diego Zoo acquired its first animals in 1917, when the city happily turned over a collection of lions, wolves, coyotes, bears, monkeys, and several other species that had been exhibited as part of the Exposition. There were also bison, elk, and deer from Balboa Park itself. Wegeforth now had a menagerie, the kernel of a zoo, which paved the way for a 1918 legal agreement that transferred control of the animals, equipment, and property to the city, and control of a zoo site to the Zoological Society. Pepper Grove and part of Gold Gulch Canyon had been first choices for the Zoo, but in 1919-20, the Zoo instead moved to a section of Cabrillo Canyon west of what had been Indian Village.

San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo
Dr. Harry Wegeforth

By 1920, matters were developing rapidly. Wegeforth literally and symbolically planted myriad seeds during the next several years. He dropped seeds as he rode his horse over the grounds, and he vividly imagined what would be the lush growth resulting from those planted seeds. He was full of ideas and had the energy to bring his visions to fruition. The first official membership drive was announced and the Panama-California Exposition buildings of the Standard Oil Company and the Combined Harvester Company were donated to the Zoo. Two years later, the Harvester Building was adapted and re-purposed as the Reptile House and Zoo entry by architect Louis J. Gill. Land for the Zoo was approved by the Board of Park Commissioners in 1921, and Ellen Browning Scripps, an ardent supporter, provided money for a fence. John D. Spreckels made numerous donations to the Zoo, with some contributions recorded and some unlisted. Well known was his acquisition of two female Asian elephants, Empress and Queenie. Children in San Diego called them Happy and Joy, according to historian Richard Amero. He and Dr. Frank H. Buck, briefly Director of the Zoo, argued in jest about the elephants. In the Zoo’s early years, money was provided by San Diego Shriners to buy camels that had been used on a movie set. A San Diego Union article dated June 19, 1923 spoke of a “herd assembled for use in some scenes of The Ten Commandments” directed by famed filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille. Amero relates the story that in 1923, during Buck’s brief directorship, the most popular Zoo attraction was a 23-foot python, especially during feeding time. For numerous reasons, Buck held the post of Director for only three months. Wegeforth felt Buck did not take suggestions or orders and the Zoological Society removed him from the position.

At the Zoo’s grand official opening in 1923, the charge for admission was set at ten cents, and children were admitted free. Visitors entered through the Reptile House. Transporting the two Asian elephants was a feat that required some creative planning. Wegeforth and Harry Edwards rode the animals from the train station, through downtown, and up to the Zoo. 1925 marked the arrival of koala bears Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, gifts from the children of Sydney, Australia, but most importantly, a woman named Belle Benchley joined the staff. In 1924, the Zoo footprint increased to 150 acres. Together, Wegeforth and Benchley worked on every aspect of the Zoo. The popular Zoonooz magazine appeared in 1926 and has continued publication ever since. In 1927, the Zoo admission fee jumped from 10 cents to 25 cents, and Benchley became Executive Secretary. A big step forward was also taken when the Hospital and Biological Research Institute, also designed by Louis J. Gill, was opened. That same year, an Elk lodge donated money for elk acreage. 1927 was an important year for many reasons, one of which was James Coffroth’s donation of the sailing ship Star of India to the Zoological Society for a maritime museum and the initiation of an aquarium.

San Diego Zoo
Belle Benchley

Queenie the elephant gave a KFSD radio interview in 1930. Two years later, the County Assessor put the Zoo animals and equipment up for auction, claiming back taxes were owed, but received no bidders. The Zoo refused to pay the taxes because the land was leased from the city. In the ’30s, the Zoo found itself on much surer ground. Its first grizzly bears were born, as was the first Galapagos albatross. The Gray Mangabey was not only the first for the Zoo, but a first for the United States. More firsts included Babirusas and Sambeer deer. The International Harvester Building became a cafe in 1936, made possible by the start of construction on a new Reptile House, thus freeing the old building that remained from the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition.

A concessions manager was hired in 1938 and an important education program connecting the zoo with San Diego City Schools was begun the next year. The Zoo summer school program followed in 1940. A short time later, a tortoise named Gertie arrived, having appeared in the 1941 movie, Malaya, starring Dorothy Lamour and Jack Haley.

Over the next few years, buildings were expanded, expeditions organized, and collections were enlarged through both importation and breeding. It was significant when, in 1934, the City of San Diego passed a proposition that assured the zoo of tax-related support. That act ensured the Zoo’s future.

San Diego Zoo

Music played a part in the life of the Zoo. In 1936, landscaping began on Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects Fern Canyon and Wegeforth Bowl, named for founder Dr. Harry Wegeforth. An interesting aside regarding use of Wegeforth Bowl is found in a summer 1972 Journal of San Diego History article by Peter Mehran. Titled “San Diego’s Opera Unit of the WPA Federal Music Project,” the piece describes evening performances in Wegeforth Bowl by the opera company. This was the time of day when the sea lions were resting from their daytime shows, which were very popular with visitors. The first production at the site was The Gay Grenediers, an operetta written by Warner Van and Vern Elliott, members of the Los Angeles Federal Music Project (FMP). Publicity pieces described it as depicting “the brief reign of Maximillian in Mexico.” The costumes and scenery arrived from Los Angeles, where it had been performed the previous May. Mehran observed that “San Diego’s mild weather made evening performances enjoyable with those with the foresight to bring a coat or a light blanket, and maybe a thermos of something.” Productions of Mikado and Geisha Girl were mounted as part of that same summer’s 1937 music series. Productions continued to be popular, in particular Barber of Seville, which was extended for two nights because of such strong attendance. But, change was imminent and shifting sentiments were felt. “With the increasingly military atmosphere of the city, the orientation of the project changed. This was the ‘Twilight of WPA music,’ with popular music ‘just froth,’ being demanded by the growing number of military camps. Sponsorship declined, despite the increased prosperity of the city,” noted Mehran. Barber of Seville and Merry Wives of Windsor were the final productions by San Diego WPA employees.

A connection regarding use of Wegeforth Bowl may be found in the early days of Starlight Opera, the successor to San Diego’s WPA Opera Unit. Starlight Opera performed in the Zoo’s Wegeforth Bowl following the end of the Second World War before settling into its permanent home at Starlight Bowl. Known as the Ford Bowl during the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition, it was next to the Ford Building, now the Air and Space Museum.

Benchley published a book titled My Life in a Man-Made Jungle in 1940, the same year in which the first Zoo lecture was delivered by Commander J. C. Thompson. Thompson’s topic was Caesar, the Kodiak Bear. Meanwhile, Wegeforth set out on an around-the-world trip in 1940 and brought back all sorts of additions to the Zoo population. There were parrots, storks, pelicans, a clouded leopard, a pair of hippos, four red pandas, and a pair of Malayan tapirs, which Benchley referred to as “the crowning exhibit in the whole shipment.” Lore has it that a female tapir, Trudy, was a great escape artist. Thanks to Amero for keeping that story alive. Wegeforth was an indefatigable world traveler, constantly scouting and acquiring animals for the Zoo.

In 1941, Wegeforth, the visionary of the San Diego Zoo, died at the age of 59. There were still critics referring to his dream as “Wegeforth’s Folly.”

Opening Postcard Image Courtesy of Darlene G. Davies Ephemera Collection. All other images Courtesy of San Diego Zoo Global

Check back in July for the 1941-1966 installment of Celebrating 100 Years of the San Diego Zoo


Upon the death of Dr. Harry Wegeforth, the very capable Zoo Veterinary Pathologist Charles Schroeder resigned — a great loss, though he returned to the Zoo as director after Benchley retired in 1953. In the 1940s and early ’50s, it was Benchley who kept things going at the Zoo, where there was no scarcity of ideas or dreams. But, the period immediately following Wegeforth’s death in 1941 was challenging in many ways besides the obvious of the Zoo founder no longer being present to guide the Zoo. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 occurred only six months after Wegeforth’s San Diego Zoodeath and the declaration of war by the United States in reaction to the attack had profound ramifications for the Zoo, as it did for the rest of the country and the world. The potential for enemy bombings that could frighten the Zoo animals caused the administration to provide employees with firearms for use against any animals attempting to run free. There were also regular air raid drills that actually did disturb the animals, and because the Zoo remained open to the public throughout the war, there was additional concern for the safety of guests. All this was accompanied for a period of time by reduced numbers of visitors and lower receipts, which meant fewer resources were available to maintain infrastructure, care for animals, and support education and research programs. Many male employees were also drafted into the various branches of the armed services, leaving specialized jobs unfilled. The first draft number drawn by the Selective Service was that of a Zoo employee named Howard Lee. He became quite a celebrity as a result, and the Zoo received worldwide publicity. Articles about Lee leaving his job to serve in the military were published across the country and even internationally. If there was a brighter side to the war effort, it was seen in the surge of patriotic volunteerism. As the Zoo entered the second quarter of its life with the United States at war in Europe and Asia, individual Americans and institutions eagerly pitched in to further the war effort. One of the patriotic ways in which the Zoo did its part was to plant a vegetable garden in Mission Valley. Because gas and tires were being rationed, the Zoo also suspended its visitor bus tours.

San Diego Zoo
Bus tour

At the same time of war-inspired personal sacrifice, the Zoo was gaining stature in the scientific world. In 1942, only three years after the birth of the first captive Andean Condor in the world at the Royal Zoological Society in Amsterdam, the San Diego Zoo was the site of the first captive Andean Condor to be hatched in the United States. Another cause for celebration, the birth of the first hippopotamus at the Zoo took place the following year. Meanwhile, the early drop in attendance was reversed and tourism was revived, partly because of the increase in San Diego’s population during the war.

With the conclusion of the war in 1945, gas rationing ended and the popular Zoo Bus Tours resumed. By that time, the Zoo had more than 2,500 animals. The media delivered fresh stories of the animals, sharing them in print, audio, and later in the visuals of television, and, much later, online via YouTube. Today, social media encourages even wider sharing of these stories in the 21st century, but, in the 1940s, it was exciting to communicate with audiences listening via radio. An evening show called Animal Kingdom debuted on radio station KSDJ in 1947, beginning a series of programs that discussed natural history. The discussions were brief and not rehearsed, so there was an immediacy to the experience. In 1948, the Zoo built a new flamingo pool, a very popular spot for the public to view the graceful and colorful birds. A dam was also constructed across the lower drainage basin. The year 1948 was topped with the opening of the Balboa Park railroad close to the Zoo entrance. The miniature railroad has remained a beloved attraction in the park ever since. In an important step, the Zoo initiated water reclamation in 1949. That was four years after the conclusion of World War II, and it is as relevant today as it was then. An interesting side note is that in 1949, San Diego experienced its first snowfall in 99 years. What must the animals have felt about that!

San Diego Zoo
The Flamingo Lagoon

The first Dr. Harry Wegeforth Day was declared in 1950, but after 1955, the name reverted to Founders Day. The creation of a publicity department in 1950 was a crucial step in further spreading the word about the Zoo around the globe. The inquiries and requests submitted on a daily basis were becoming formidable in number. Media outlets and platforms were about to proliferate and a formal publicity department was essential. One example of priceless publicity was Behind the Scenes at the Zoo, a weekly TV series on KFMB that debuted on September 22, 1951. Another example was the local KFMB television program Zoorama, which went on the air locally in 1955, and ran nationally on CBS Sundays beginning in 1965. Doug Oliver hosted the local program. The subsequent national show was hosted by the irrepressible Bob Dale with San Diegan Bob Gardner as Director of Photography. It was hugely popular. For the first decade, the local show was shot in black and white, but the 39-episode national Zoorama was filmed in color.

San Diego Zoo

This is Gardner’s recollection of the CBS involvement in the 1965 national program: “After some years of shooting Zoorama in black and white, George Stantis, the producer, and Ralph Hodges, the director, made a pitch to CBS to buy the show.

To everyone’s surprise, CBS said yes, but it had to see a pilot, so Channel 8 hired Roger Tilton to shoot the pilot on 16 mm color film. Tilton had a film studio and had produced one or two feature films at that time and was the premier independent film producer in town. Once the show was scripted, we came up with that famous opening where the siamang ‘whooped’ as we flew a copter over the entrance to the Zoo and zoomed into Bob Dale.”

“I had the best job in the world,” Gardner says. “I was completely accepted by the staff, and the curators were exceptionally responsive to our needs.” To produce a half-hour show, Gardner spent four days each week at the Zoo. “We produced the show with a small crew of four or five people and I not only directed photography, but edited and oversaw sound mixing. In those days, that meant cutting the film with a razor blade and splicing scenes together. I traveled back and forth between San Diego and Hollywood, where I checked all dailies and footage at laboratories and made sure the program arrived at CBS on time.”

Gardner is brimming with stories: “One time our electrician got things backwards and we were shooting a segment where Bob Dale and a curator were going to ride up the brand new moving sidewalk past the huge bird enclosure. When Dale stepped onto the moving sidewalk, holding his hand held microphone, and touched the railing, he got a full 120 volts through his microphone and his body and he let out a scream and an [expletive deleted] as we heard what sounded like lightening on the sound track. We almost killed him.” Funny now — not so funny then. Of course, the footage was saved for the blooper reel.

Celebrities galore appeared on Zoorama, including Arthur Godfrey, a very big name at the time. But the animals were the real draw. Gardner still recalls the incredible strength of the Zoo apes. The orangutans could pull more than double the weight of a strongman. Gardner also fondly remembers the affectionate nature of baby orangutans in the early Children’s Zoo, and the long-term bond that arose between those animals and humans.

San Diego Zoo

“One of the biggest problems we had was we filmed each segment in one take in real time. Each segment was about seven minutes long. So we really had to be ready. We had to know what we were doing but the real pressure came from the California Bell Tower. The chiming bells were so loud that they ruined the sound track and we had to start over. It chimed the hour and then chimed in 15- and 30-minute intervals. So we had to wait for the chime and then roll film right after the chime to be finished in our seven minutes or we had to wait until the next chime. Adding to our pressure and stress were flyovers by jets, ruining the takes in between.”

An Official Zoo Greeter was designated in 1951 and it was none other than a salmon-crested cockatoo named King Tut. He had been donated by Mrs. I.D. Putnam of La Mesa. Four koala bears arrived from Sydney, Australia the next year, on loan to Paramount Studios for a film titled Botany Bay. The first Kiwi safely arrived from New Zealand in 1954. It was a point of pride that it was the only one in the Western Hemisphere. Koala bears continue to charm tourists and have remained quite the attraction.

Dr. Schroeder returned to the Zoo in 1954 and undertook the task of establishing a Children’s Zoo. $150,000 was raised for the project, and, in response, acreage occupied by the Japanese Tea House and Garden was transferred by the City to the Zoological Society. That was in 1955. Neglected and in disrepair, the once beautiful Tea House was torn down, making room for the Children’s Zoo, which opened in 1957. Designed by noted San Diego architect Lloyd Ruocco, with a distinguished design team that included Charles Faust and Bill Noonan, the Children’s Zoo was a petting zoo, and parents loved watching the interaction between their young ones and the animals. It became a very popular spot for families, as much for parents as for children. The same year saw the building of a Zoo exit breezeway and gift shop. There were also some new residents on the property — animals who moved in to their new digs. Among the newcomers were Emperor penguins, a reticulated giraffe, a Chinese alligator, a flying snake, and a Hawaiian monk seal.

Historian Richard Amero related a story about additional attractions in 1958. Added were a mouse tunnel, a snake pit, a turtle aquarium, and a house of spiders, scorpions, and insects. According to Amero, “Charles Shaw, Assistant Zoo Superintendent, noted that adults at those exhibits outnumbered children, though, and unlike children, their heads got bumps in the small enclosures.”

Dr. Schroeder actively developed the Zoo property, one example being the iconic Flamingo Lagoon at the entrance. The mirror pool was replaced by the new and dryer Flamingo Lagoon. The first flamingo chick hatched in 1957. So much was accomplished in these years. In 1958, Wegeforth Bowl was remodeled and a semicircular pool was added. Additionally, guests could walk into the aviary for the first time because of a transformation of the Flight Cage. Considered the “father of the Wild Animal Park,” Schroeder envisioned that remarkable animal habitat as early as 1959.

San Diego Zoo
Flight cage

The Polar Bear Grotto, in iceberg-style architecture, opened in 1960. The Grotto’s first residents were Frieda, Hilda, and Olaf, all fittingly from Norway. The first Hawaiian geese were introduced in 1961, and, the same year, a Waterfowl Lagoon was created.

San Diego Zoo
Bear exhibit

In a flurry of activity in 1962, a new Gorilla Grotto designed by Charles Faust was opened. Two rare square-lipped White Rhinos were given to the Zoo by the Natal Parks Game and Fish Preservation Board, and the first Siberian Tigers arrived. The distinguished architect Homer Delawie designed the giraffe enclosure, a major space consisting of a moated parabola, a 1,600-square-foot building, and two exhibit yards. Also in 1962, an Acoustiguide became available, providing visitors with 40 minutes of recorded commentary.

San Diego Zoo

It was big news when the Zoo received a pair of Komodo dragons from Surabaja in 1963. That captured the public’s imagination, and people flocked to see wildlife from areas of the world about which they had only read or dreamed.

Despite pleas and signs asking visitors to refrain from feeding the animals, people continued to do so. Signs were posted and tourists were reminded in 1965, but temptation to share food with the critters still won out. Although raised to $7.50 in 1964, the price of a Zoo membership was raised again to $10 in 1965. Membership was getting more expensive, but the Zoo was on a roll.

The public, which was so thrilled by the arrival of the Komodo Dragons from Java in 1963 and the opening of the Hummingbird Aviary the following year, was equally excited about the first Pygmy chimpanzee birth in 1966, the year that marked the end of the Zoo’s first half century. More than 60 construction projects were completed. There had been non-stop activity since 1916, but as busy as the Zoo was, nothing would prepare it for the transformative projects of the next 50 years. The Zoo would need to be nimble as the world rapidly changed — in attitude, advancing technology, and the recognition of limited natural resources. At the close of its first half century, it was only just beginning, revving its engines, as it moved into the future, powered by visions that would create the Wild Animal Park and tell the story of the San Diego Zoo to the entire world.

Zoorama: Photos courtesy of Bob Gardner Photograph Collection     All other photography courtesy of Darlene G. Davies Ephemera Collection

Check back in August for the 1966-1991 installment of Celebrating 100 Years of the San Diego Zoo


Linnette, the first bonobo born at the San Diego Zoo in 1966
Linnette, the first bonobo born at the San Diego Zoo in 1966

Zoorama ran nationally on CBS through 1970. Add to that the emergence of Zoo ambassador Joan Embery, a Children’s Zoo attendant who had been named “Miss Zoofari” in 1970. Embery was actually the second Miss Zoofari, and though many people don’t know it, she appeared on the TV show What’s My Line? in 1970. Embery went on to make numerous appearances on the Tonight Show, and the result was megawatt name identification. After her myriad TV appearances, all Americans knew and loved the San Diego Zoo. Audiences were entertained and educated by the unusual and exotic animals that appeared with Johnny Carson, famously wrapping themselves around his arms and neck to viewers’ delight.

Joan Embery on the Tonight Show with Gordy the gorilla and Johnny Carson in 1987
Joan Embery on the Tonight Show with Gordy the gorilla and Johnny Carson in 1987

Sesame Street came to the Zoo in the late 1960s when it filmed segments for the early series. The production was assisted by local KPBS staff members. On the show, concepts such as “big” and “small” were illustrated by comparing large and small animals, all underscored with original music. Like Zoorama, Sesame Street would achieve national prominence. Paul Marshall, the KPBS Production Director at the time, recalls being assigned a senior zookeeper who knew the interesting things the animals were doing at different times of the day. He noted one particularly dramatic event that took place around three o’clock in the afternoon when two competing rhinoceroses would square off and charge at each other. “We set up the camera and tripod, adjusted our angles and waited. Sure enough, the two large beasts started pawing the ground and snorting, then marched deliberately toward each other and came nose to nose, horn to horn. Cameras rolled and all of a sudden, a large tongue emerged and licked the snout of the other animal and it became obvious that the two were more interested in love than war. Later, we observed the edited piece on Sesame Street, which had been cut to sappy romantic music. That segment aired many times.”

From 1965 until 2010, a gorilla named Avila was a beloved resident of the Zoo, though she was loaned to other zoos from time to time as part of breeding programs. She was a world-wide celebrity, being the first gorilla born at the San Diego Zoo and one of only seven gorillas born in captivity at zoos around the globe. Avila was a mother several times and she also played the role of surrogate mother to abandoned gorilla babies. While the average length of life of a western lowland gorilla is 35 years, Avila lived 45 years — years crammed with activity.

A baby gorilla, 1986
A baby gorilla, 1986

Groundbreaking for the Skyfari aerial tram took place on October 11, 1968. Opened the following year, the ride was an instant success. Spanning the Zoo’s mesas and canyons, Skyfari provided visitors with a spectacular experience. Alas, the cost of Zoo membership increased to $12.50 the same year. But, 1969 marked an attendance record, with 3 million visitors from near and far. A giant step was also taken in that year to secure land for the dreamed of “natural environment zoo” in San Pasqual. The creation of the Wild Animal Park — now Safari Park — was anchored by an agreement establishing a wildlife preserve on San Diego City land that was signed by Society President Anderson Borthwick and Mayor Frank Curran. Dr. Schoeder retired. Schoeder had begun his tenure as Zoo Director in 1954, but his association with the Zoo extended much further back than that. Dr. Donald Kinter replaced him, but his time with the Zoo was less than a year.

Hurray for women. The year 1974 marked the first time a Zoo bus tour was driven by a female. That year, conservation medals were awarded to iconic chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall and Heini Hediger, director of the Zurich Zoo. More and more adventures at the Wild Animal Park were being offered to the public, including a Kilimanjaro hiking trail.

In 1973, the much revered and indomitable Belle Benchley died at the age of 91. By that time, Zoological membership cost $16. In 1974, a great step forward was taken when the graphic design department was started by the very talented Bill Noonan. He set a standard that would be matched by Charles Faust, Joe Nyri, and others. The Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES) was created two years after Benchley’s death, in 1975. The distinguished Dr. Kurt Benirschke was named Director. CRES was, and still is, committed to the conservation of animal species. The Park’s Beckman Center was set up specifically to store the frozen ovaries and sperm of endangered species. The beloved Polar Bear Plunge also opened, though it encountered controversy, and Mayor Maureen O’Connor adopted a zoo animal, starting a tradition.

From 1970 on, Joan Embery played a significant role in the life of the Zoo. Her involvement as a continuing goodwill ambassador did not stop in 1991, but extended through the next 25 years to the Zoo’s centennial birthday celebration. Over the years, Embery has appeared on myriad TV shows in addition to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (and later Jay Leno). She brought animals to Good Morning America, PM Magazine, The Home Show, Donahue, Hour Magazine, Entertainment Tonight, and many others. She also served as host on two TV series, Animal Express and Animals of Africa. Both series aired in the United States and overseas. At the same time, Embery was hostess on the Baby Panda and Challenge to Wildlife specials for PBS. She wrote three books: My Wild World and Amazing Animal Facts; On Horses; The Good Dog Book. Later, she composed a computer workbook titled Dogs!

In 1975, Charles Bieler was appointed Zoo Director. Bieler remains active as a patron and volunteer to this day. Tropical America added another attraction to the Wild Animal Park in 1977 with the Park’s first elephant show.

“Kicks for Critters” held its first fundraiser in 1980. “The RITZ” appeared in 1985, though it was briefly known as the Ocelots’ “Cats in Concert” in the transitional Year of 1984. “Cats” was chaired by Letitia Swortwood and Susan Eres and the beneficiary was Tiger River. Tony Bennett was the headliner. Swortwood continued to provide major support to the Zoo in ensuing years. The beneficiary in 1985 again was Tiger River construction, with Sandra Vecchione as chair and Rich Little as guest performer. Doug Myers became Zoo Director, and Joan Kroc donated $3.3 million to enable construction of the “total immersion” setting, something that led to the creation of the Zoo’s “bioclimatic” zones. A bronze sculpture weighing one ton was also donated to the Zoo in honor of former Society President Borthwick, a strong and influential civic leader. The massive art piece depicting a southern white rhino captured his importance. The success of Zoo RITZ through the years has been phenomenal, not only raising needed funds, but because it is regarded as one of San Diego’s most beautiful annual events.

The Zoo’s Conservation medal was awarded to his Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, on February 26, 1983. The honor was bestowed upon the Prince when the Royals visited Balboa Park. He toured the Zoo while Queen Elizabeth visited the Old Globe Theatre. It was the first visit to the United States by the Queen since she’d come to mark the nation’s bicentennial in 1976.

Zoo Society membership cost $45 in 1985. It had been raised to $40 the year before. A real shift took place in 1986 when the Zoo began rebuilding according to the “bio-climate” concept that started with “Tiger River” and Joan Kroc’s great generosity.

The projects supported by Zoo RITZ and the indefatigable chairs of that annual gala from 1986-1991 deserve acknowledgment. Those efforts in the early history of the RITZ were formidable: Sun Bear Forest benefited and Jane Fetter chaired in 1986; Betty DeBakcsy chaired the event which also funded Sun Bear Forest in 1987. These new areas were costly. An impressive Gorilla Exhibit was supported in 1987, with Jan Madigan as chair, and a new area of Pygmy Chimps was the cause in 1989, with Alison Tibbitts at the helm of the gala. Elizabeth “Jinx” Ecke and Dragon Sherman headed the 1990 event, which had a theme of Secret Garden and benefited horticulture of the Zoo. 1991 was a biggie, marking the 75th anniversary and entitled Diamond Zoobilee. It benefited the Australasia rare bird exhibits and the chair was Dick Ford, the man who had visually designed previous Zoo RITZ occasions.

Golden monkeys from China arrived in 1987 for a two-year stay — great news, but the golden monkeys couldn’t compete with giant pandas. Some golden monkeys had been sent to the Zoo as “Conservation Goodwill Ambassadors” from the People’s Republic of China in 1984. Now, they would be at the Zoo for an extended stay, but competing with the giant panda was impossible. The arrival of pandas Yuan Yuan and Basi from the Republic of China lured hordes of visitors, with sales of panda ephemera breaking all records. People were nuts about pandas. To accommodate visitors, Zoo employees parked in the lot of the former Sears Roebuck store in Hillcrest, taking shuttles to work. Meanwhile, the Wild Animal Park offered myriad possibilities for imaginative programming and crowd-pleasing attractions. Examples include the introduction of “Wild About Holidays” and “Festival of Lights.”

Panda, 1987
Panda, 1987

Royal Lipizzaner horses came to the Wild Animal Park in 1990. CRES also produced the first hatched pheasant as a result of artificial insemination. Membership cost was scheduled to increase to $58 in 1991. As the year 1991 approached, the Zoo readied for a blowout celebration of its 75th birthday, even as leaders were re-imagining the San Diego Zoo for the 21st century.

Photography courtesy of the San Diego Zoo

Check back in September for the 1991-2016 installment of Celebrating 100 Years of the San Diego Zoo



The San Diego Zoo turned 75 with great hoopla in 1991, but there were more celebrations ahead. In 1992, the Wild Animal Park marked its 20th birthday, and the Zoo’s Tree House opened, a three-story complex featuring a cafeteria and a fine restaurant named Albert’s, a popular dining spot still to this day. Elsewhere on the Zoo grounds, the Butterfly Encounter in the new Hummingbird Pavilion opened.

Highs of 1993 included earning American Museum accreditation; the birth of the first Asian elephant, Omar; the opening of an insectarium called Hidden Jungle; and the beginning of negotiations with China for a breeding loan regarding two pandas. Among the lows of the year was the burning of 800 acres. Though no animals died, significant vegetation was damaged. Also, depending on one’s viewpoint, yea or nay, the Zoological Society raised the membership price to $62. Based on the intense interest in pandas at the Zoo, it wasn’t surprising the theme of the 1993 R.I.T.Z. was the panda, as in “Pandamonium.”

Zoo Pandamonium. Graphic by San Diego Zoological Society and courtesy of Darlene G. Davies Ephemera Collection

By 1994, there were Night Zoo experiences and sleepovers as well. Roar and Snore camping began at the Wild Animal Park in the same period. The Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation program was launched, and successful open-heart surgery was performed on a two-year-old orangutan.

The wonderful Hippo Beach, on a three-acre site in Cascade Canyon, opened in 1995. It was a major new attraction, 110 feet long with a 150,000-gallon pool that offered under water viewing of hippos. There were also 12 hippo sand sculptures and a bronze hippo play sculpture. There seemed no limit to the innovative new experiences being offered.

The Rose Parade, 1996
The Rose Parade, 1996

New Year’s Day 1996 began with a Zoo float in the Rose Parade, a great honor as the San Diego Zoo was the first zoo ever included in the popular Pasadena event. The float carried hippos, an 80th birthday cake, and Zoo Ambassador Joan Embery. Meanwhile, the Zoo threw its own 80th birthday bash at home, “Celebra80.” Though clearly it was on a roll, not all the publicity that year spread good news. A visitor was bitten on the hip after jumping into the Manchurian bear exhibit. Fortunately he was rescued.

The 30-acre Heart of Africa opened the next year, the same year bearded pigs were successfully bred at the Zoo. The Wild Animal Park also reached the quarter-century mark.

There was more big panda news when Bai Yun and Shi Shi were loaned to the Zoo by the People’s Republic of China, part of a 12-year conservation project for Chinese pandas. As always, the pandas were immensely popular with the public, especially when Bai Yun and Shi Shi produced Hua Mei in 1999. Fittingly, there was even a naming ceremony to mark her arrival. In 2003, Shi Shi was sent back to China, and giant panda Gao Gao arrived here in San Diego. Mirroring the growth of the Zoo, visitor hours were expanded, including a 7:30am “Morning Zoo Rise.” Hua Mei returned to China in 2004, and that same year gave birth to twins. Meanwhile, Lion Camp, a 33,000-square-foot exhibit featuring six lions, opened at the Wild Animal Park.

By 2005, things were really humming at the Wild Animal Park, where the Conservation Carousel opened, highlighting rare and endangered species. There was also Monkey Trails and Forest Tales, a three-acre, multilevel exhibit that tied together key areas of the Park. The very popular Balloon Safari opened that year, and a sigh of relief was heard when Kasten, a South African caracal, miraculously recovered from a deadly snake bite. Kasten was a major draw as a performer.

A highlight of 2006 was the establishment of the Children’s Rainforest Art Explorer Program, intended to reach “out to families experiencing devastating illness and chronic diseases.” Development of a strategic plan in 2007 provided the Zoological Society with master plans for both the Zoo and the Wild Animal Park. The significance of these blueprints cannot be overemphasized, as they have driven the direction of subsequent attractions.

More excitement was in the air in 2008 when the Wild Animal Park introduced the Great Rift Lift elevator. Then, in readiness for the opening of the Zoo’s innovative

Elephant Odyssey exhibit the following year, the final Elephant Show was performed at the Park, and soon thereafter, the Asian elephant collection was transported to the Zoo. But, there were plenty of exciting new attractions forthcoming at the Park as well. Imagine taking a Wilderness Ridge Mule Ride where visitors enjoyed a two-hour passage through a San Pasqual Valley coastal scrub habitat. People had fun, while learning a great deal. There was also Flightline, a zipline spanning two-thirds of a mile that brought myriad participants to the Park.

The Harry & Grace Steele Elephant Odyssey opened in 2009. It cost $44.2 million and covered seven acres, including a 2.5-acre area that boasted a 137,000-gallon pool for the elephants, a Conrad Prebys Elephant Management Facility that ran a half acre, and four acres focused on education and 30 other species. That same year, Kids Free Days were extended to the Wild Animal Park, which meant free entrance for children 11 years and under. The Zoological Society was an ever moving and changing entity. Events continued, with some added and some deleted. In 2009, Founders Day was discontinued at both the Zoo and the Park.

In 2010, The Wild Animal Park was renamed Safari Park, now home to 2,600 animals, and welcoming more than a million visitors a year. Meanwhile, CRES continues to carry on its important work to preserve endangered species. The year 2010 also marked celebrity status of a hippo named Otis, who was photographed baring his teeth in what appeared to many as a wide, beaming smile. Photos of a grinning Otis were shared on the World Wide Web.

T11-0334-009 Park Sign

Aware of the increasingly digital age, Zoonooz launched an iPad application offering issues and content not found in print format. In the same month, September 2012, the San Diego Zoo Academy was launched, designed as an Internet-based training program for animal care staffs around the globe.

Zoo - Koala Bear. Photo by Paul MarshallAmong new areas opened at the Zoo in the last quarter century have been the Bongo Enclosure, Elephant Odyssey, Australian Outback, Madagascar Habitat, and Africa Rocks. Meerkats also arrived from South Africa. With their ever-erect posture, direct gaze, and group movement, they quickly captured the public’s fancy.

In November 2015, Nola, a greatly loved 41-year-old rhino, was euthanized at Safari Park because of a bacterial infection and her advanced age. She was one of only four white rhinos still alive in the world.

The San Diego Zoo hosts several million visitors a year, and is now home to more than 3,700 rare and endangered animals. In addition to the Zoo and Safari Park,

San Diego Zoo Global also operates the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. The Zoo occupies 100 acres where more than 700,000 plants grow, many of which are used to feed the animals. There are willow branches for Pygmy chimps and bamboo for pandas, as well as eucalyptus for koala bears. Hibiscus flowers feed Galapagos turtles and hibiscus foliage is for primates. The exotic horticulture is functional as well as beautiful, making the Zoo an aesthetically pleasing place to all who visit.

Zoo Sign T12-0426-011

Plans to enhance the entrance to the Zoo were unveiled in December 2015, with new signage emphasizing the 100-year milestone. The Zoo Centennial Community Celebration at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion took place on May 14, 2016, and it was an enormous success, with huge numbers of participants since it was free to the public. Celebrants reveled in festivities that marked the 100-year anniversary of the Zoo. In June, the beneficiary of proceeds from the 2016 R.I.T.Z. Centennial party, a redesigned children’s zoo, was designated, in keeping with evolving ideas about animal habitats. Similarly, the entire San Diego Zoo is continually evolving, in keeping with the observation that in life “the only constant is change.”

New ideas in a new century. In 1916, it all began with that roar. One hundred years later, the lion is still roaring.

Zoo roar logo_Photo courtesy of the San Diego Zoo
Koala: Photo by Paul Marshall         Pandamonium: Graphic by San Diego Zoological Society; courtesy of Darlene G. Davies Ephemera Collection        All other photography courtesy of San Diego Zoo






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