Exploring Balboa Park: Starting a zoo with a roar

Posted: October 2nd, 2015 | Columnists, Exploring Balboa Park, Featured | No Comments

By Johnny McDonald

A 75-foot mural along Wegeforth Bowl’s outside wall will depict countless San Diego Zoo achievements and serve as an attractive tribute when the world-class facility celebrates its centennial next year.

To cram in the highlights must have been a job.

Historically, said Director Dwight Scott, it all began because of a lion’s roar.

“Dr. Harry [Wegeforth] was driving past the exposition fairgrounds on Sixth Avenue when he heard the animals,” Scott said. “The exposition was closing in October 1916 and the officials needed to get rid of them.

“Wegeforth talked wild animal collector Frank [‘Bring ‘em Back Alive’] Buck into being his first director but because of philosophical differences the relationship lasted only three months. The main reason was Wegeforth’s equal interest in conservation.”


San Diego Zoo Director Dwight Scott with a tamandua (Courtesy Zoological Society of San Diego)

Scott said the Zoo founder liked to poke a hole in the ground with his cane and toss in a few seeds

“And the results can be seen today,” he said. “We receive as many compliments about our botanical gardens as we do our animals.”

Scott pointed out that Zoo history personifies progression through the years for animal transitions from confinement to large habitats resembling their native lands.

He noted that expansions have included the Polar Bear Plunge, Elephant Odyssey, Tiger River, two huge aviaries, Gorilla Tropics, Outback and Sun Bear Forest.

Even now, they’re starting on Africa Rocks, an 8-acre, $68 million diverse enclosure, the largest undertaking in Zoo history. It will be completed in 2017.

The exhibit will transform the 1930s-era Dog and Cat Canyon, one of the oldest areas of the Zoo, into an engaging African landscapes.

Africa Rocks will be home to African penguins as the Zoo begins its participation in an international species survival plan for these endangered aquatic birds.

The Africa Rocks project is funded by more than 6,500 donors. The habitat can be sectioned off into separate exhibits, depending on animal-care needs. Mesh passageways will span the visitor walkway and allow the leopards to cross from one exhibit to another. Other animals including zebras, African penguins, several species of lemurs, baboons and ground hornbills will live in habitats that resemble their native homeland.

“We haven’t had penguins here in 30 years,” Scott said.

Additionally, discussions have included the possible expansion of the children’s zoo, which was built in 1957.

And to think back to 1923 when Ellen Browning Scripps donated money to construct a surrounding fence for safety and to establish an admission fee. First charge was 10 cents.

Wegeforth’s executive secretary, Belle Benchley, became the first woman Zoo director in 1925 and was succeeded in 1953 by Dr. Charles Schroeder, a noted veterinarian.

“With the changes, we’ve had a better understanding of the animal needs by building complex environments for the them,” Scott continued. “We want to make sure the animal will experience a new life and make the landscape the best way we can with the botanical gardens hills and valleys.”

He said the zoo is managing the endangered, so they won’t have to go in the wild to replenish certain species. “We haven’t had to take animals out of the wild for many years,“ he stressed.

San Diego Zoo Global is a conservation organization dedicated to the science of saving endangered species worldwide. It includes Safari Park and the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

There have been animals that took star billing like Albert, a huge gorilla, Ken Allen, the orangutan escape artist, and a cockatoo called King Tut. A bronze statue of King Tut stands where he was perched for several decades.

Many others joined Zoo ambassador Joan Embry as she made guest appearances on late night talk shows with Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and others. Embry is still associated with the Zoo.

“I’ve worked with several zoos throughout the country and I would say the relationship we have with the city of San Diego is unprecedented,” Scott said. Scott was director at the Oklahoma City zoo for six and a half years.

“We have recently opened a parking structure for our employees and freed up space for our visitors,” Scott concluded.

After an award-winning, 38-year sports-writing career with the San Diego Union and authoring three books, Johnny McDonald now considers writing a hobby. You can reach him at

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