San Diego Zoo



Dr. Harry Wegeforth and three colleagues started the Zoological Society of San Diego in hopes of opening a zoo in Balboa Park



Wegeforth and his colleagues took in abandoned animals from the 1915 Panama-California Exposition



A piece of land was reserved in Balboa Park for the future zoo



Belle Benchley joined the team and worked as the zoo director



The world’s only albino koala was born and named Onya-Birri, meaning ‘Ghost Boy’



The San Diego Zoo celebrated its centennial

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a zoo in San Diego? I believe I’ll build one.”

Harry M. Wegeforth, M.D.*


The Zoo Gets Its Start

After the 1915 Panama-California Exposition held in San Diego, many of the exotic animals that had been shown were abandoned. Dr. Harry Wegeforth used this opportunity to create the San Diego Zoo. He was determined that the animals would remain in as natural a habitat as possible and was responsible for many “cageless” exhibits. The zoo, modeled after the Bronx Zoo in NY, found a permanent home on 99 acres in Balboa Park in 1921. The City of San Diego owned the animals, but the Zoo would manage them.


Some Zoo Notables

After several zoo directors came and went, Belle Benchley** was hired as the first woman zoo director of the time in 1927. The “Zoo Lady” as she was known, held this position until 1953, and was responsible for turning the facility into a major Zoo.

The world’s only albino koala, Onya-Birri (Ghost Boy) was born at the zoo in 1997; the zoo now houses the largest number of koala bears outside Australia.

In 2014, after an absence of almost 40 years, African penguins arrive and will be housed in 2017 in an area called Africa Rocks.

In 2016, the last pangolin on display in North America, Baba, passed away.


The Great Escapes

No, this does not refer to the movie, 1963 film, The Great Escape, but of San Diego Zoo animals who managed to outwit zoo management. Ken Allen***, the “hairy Houdini” was an orangutan who escaped numerous times from the zoo. In 2015, two Wolf guenons managed to escape and head toward the freeway – they were successfully returned to their Ituri Forest enclosure. In 2014, Mundi, a koala bear, decided that the tree outside his habitat was a good place for him to hang out until the zoo closed that day. And finally, in 2013, two hyenas tried to join a private party at the zoo, which had to go on lockdown until they were located.


How Do I Get Around and What Can I See?

To see the approximately 18 different exhibits at the zoo, visitors can ride a guided tour bus or a Skyfari gondola. A sampling of exhibits include Monkey Trails and Forest Tales, Panda Trek, Polar Bear Plunge****, Elephant Odyssey, and Tiger River.


Conservation Efforts

As is often the case, zoos come under pressure from environmentalists and preservationists. The San Diego Zoo is active in conservation of species that include the California condor, giant pandas, tigers, African black rhinos, and 145 other endangered species. Their Institute for Conservation Research is the largest zoo-based effort in the world and they work diligently to reintroduce species to the wild and maintain a cryopreservation facility for rare sperm and eggs (the frozen zoo).


Did You Know?

  • Factors depend on whether you can call the San Diego Zoo the largest in the world – if measured by different species, then the 4,500 animals from 900 species make San Diego home to the largest zoo.
  • The San Diego Zoo is featured in the opening credits of the TV show, Three’s Company.
  • There is a large botanical garden on the Zoo grounds that raises rare animal foods, such as 40 varieties of bamboo to feed the pandas on loan from China.


* Wegeforth said this after hearing a lion roar at the Panama-California Exposition in 1915.

** Belle Benchley’s gravestone bears the head of a smiling gorilla.

*** Ken Allen had his own fan club, complete with Free Ken Allen bumper stickers.

**** Not to be confused with the New Year’s Day tradition of diving into a frozen body of water.



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