The San Diego Zoo grew out of exotic animal exhibitions abandoned after the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Dr. Harry M. Wegeforth founded the Zoological Society of San Diego, meeting October 2, 1916, which initially followed precedents set by the New York Zoological Societyat the Bronx Zoo. He served as president of the society until 1941. A permanent tract of land in Balboa Park was set aside in August 1921; on the advice of the city attorney, it was agreed that the city would own all the animals and the zoo would manage them. The zoo began to move in the following year. In addition to the animals from the Exposition, the zoo acquired a menagerie from the defunct Wonderland Amusement Park.Ellen Browning Scripps financed a fence around the zoo so that it could begin charging an entrance fee to offset costs. The publicationZooNooz commenced in early 1925.
Animal collector Frank Buck went to work as director for the San Diego Zoo on June 13, 1923, signed to a three-year contract by Wegeforth. William T. Hornaday, director of the Bronx Zoo, had recommended Buck for the job. But Buck quickly clashed with the strong-willed Wegeforth and left the zoo after three months to return to animal collecting.
After several other equally short-lived zoo directors, Wegeforth appointed the zoo’s bookkeeper, Belle Benchley, to the position of executive secretary, in effect zoo director; she was given the actual title of zoo director a few years later. She served as zoo director from 1925 until 1953. For most of that time she was the only female zoo director in the world. She was succeeded as director by Dr. Charles Schroeder.
The San Diego Zoo was a pioneer in building “cageless” exhibits. Wegeforth was determined to create moated exhibits from the start, and the first lion area at the San Diego Zoo without enclosing wires opened in 1922.
* Oil on canvas, on view in the “Confluence” art exhibit.
** I’ll post a plein-air oil painting of the Harry M. Wegeforth home. I painted it for the San Diego Historical Society’s “Designers Showcase” in the late 70’s .