Think back to your last zoo trip. More likely than not, most of the larger animals were contained in open air facilities, with features tailored to the animal’s native landscape. The animals probably had free access to sleeping quarters away from the public view, and diets based upon their natural food sources. You might not have seen it, but there was almost definitely an on-site veterinary hospital with a specialized nursery to tend to the animals. Each of these innovations was brought to the zoological community’s attention by the phenomenal success of the San Diego Zoo, and the person who oversaw it all was Belle Benchley, the zoo’s director for a quarter of a century, and the world’s first woman to hold that position.
It is painful, and a bit humiliating for the human species, to think back to what zoos were like before Benchley and her crew reinvented the genre for the modern age. Animals kept in small, sparse steel cages, subject to whatever cruel whims their spectators might dream up, with nowhere to hide from the public’s pokings and proddings. Species that lived for decades in the wild died within a year in the cramped conditions of a classical Victorian zoo. In the United States, the absolute record for keeping a koala alive was four days. The zoo was there to make money by displaying animals to people. The audience was the first concern, the health of the animals a distant second, and the conducting of research to improve the lives of the animals still in the wild wasn’t even a notion.
Often, to fundamentally change an institution, you have to be something of an outsider. A person who hasn’t been brought up in the assumptions of the industry, and so is prepared to ask basic questions about what Ought to be done, rather than offer craggy affirmations of what always Has Been done. Belle Benchley had utterly no training in zoology when she was tapped to become the zoo’s first real permanent director. Born in 1882 to a tight-lipped but supportive family, she at first was bound for the typical role of elementary school teacher and mother, when divorce forced her to find new employment in 1925.
By pure chance, the San Diego Zoological Society, a group of five men who had thrown together a few dozen abandoned circus animals with the idea of making a zoo that would teach children a love for wildlife, stood in need of a new book-keeper, and weren’t particular about experience. Benchley applied and, somehow, got the job, which turned out to be rather more than a normal book-keeping position. She was constantly on the phone to field the public’s questions about different animals, personally wandering around the zoo to hunt down the answers, and in the process picking up details from each individual keeper about the creatures in their charge. Soon, she made it her routine to spend each lunch observing a new animal, talking with the people worked with it. Cage by cage, she learned the feeding procedures, behavioral habits, and upkeep necessities, of each creature inhabiting the still modest San Diego Zoo.
At the core of the Benchley approach was the motto of putting animal care at the head of the zoo’s list of priorities… The zoo, at last, was about the animals, not the audience.
The president of the zoological society, Dr. Harry Wegeforth, saw her assuming more and more of the daily running of the zoo and, unable to find a long-term director, promoted her first to Executive Secretary and then, in 1927, to full director, the first woman in the world to fill that position. She kept it until 1953 when she retired at last at the age of seventy after having trained several generations of zoo staff in her methods.
At the core of the Benchley approach was the motto of putting animal care at the head of the zoo’s list of priorities. Animals were to be given as much space as possible, with terrain features that matched the animals’ natural behaviors. Against much professional advice, she spear-headed an initiative to develop a cage-less enclosure, creating large open air grottos surrounded by moats in place of the de rigeur steel cages of the past. She also ensured that each animal had a separate private area which they always had access to, a place they could go when they felt stressed or anxious, even if it meant their public exhibit remained empty. The zoo, at last, was about the animals, not the audience.
Having redefined how the animals were displayed and treated in public, Benchley pressed on to create a new support structure for the animals behind the scenes. She unveiled the first animal hospital at a zoo and developed a comprehensive nursery program. As a result, infant mortality was radically reduced and average lifespan shot skyward. Benchley’s team kept thunderously death-prone koalas thriving for years, seals for decades, and, thanks to the reduction of stress brought about by the larger enclosures, the zoo witnessed the first captivity birth of species after species. The success in breeding, longevity, and overall health soon spawned imitators, and today every zoo is, to some degree, an echo of the Benchley model.
Benchley toured the zoo at least once daily, keeping herself apprised of the status of each animal, and relentlessly weeding out any staff who put their animals in danger through cruelty or carelessness. Over the course of two decades of such visits, she amassed a store of zoo tales which she shared in articles through the zoo’s trailblazing publication, Zoonooz, and in hundreds of personal school, radio, and television appearances. She made sure the zoo worked with the community and the press to promote the cause of wildlife study and species conservation, and when she left her post in 1953, the rag-tag collection of ex circus animals she had inherited had grown into a collection of several thousand species kept in facilities unilaterally considered the best in the world.
Today the San Diego Zoo, and its offshoot the San Diego Wild Animal Park (now the Safari Park) is the pride of the entire San Diego region, running extensive programs in the preservation of endangered species and the storage of genetic information about extinct species while continuing to push the boundaries of natural habitat enclosures that Belle Benchley pioneered nearly a century ago. She died in 1972, known to multiple generations of children as, simply, the Zoo Lady.
BONUS: Belle Benchley paper dolls… print and enjoy!
*lead image “Belle Benchley with Sumatran tiger cubs” courtesy of San Diego Zoo Global, republished on Women You Should Know with express permission of the organization.
FURTHER READING: Belle Benchley’s My Life in a Man Made Jungle (1942) is an incredibly charming, if occasionally naively anthropomorphic, collection of animal tales from her first decade and a half as zoo director. As in her work, the focus is on the animals, and one doesn’t get much of a view into her life story as a result. The Zoo Lady: Belle Benchley and the San Diego Zoo (1980) by Margaret Poynter is a brief juvenile biography that has some more biographical details and many priceless pictures of the early days of the San Diego Zoo. Eve and the Apes, by Emily Hahn, gives several miniature biographies of less well-known women in the field of primate studies, and the first chapter is an engaging study of Benchley and her work with orangutans and gorillas at the zoo.