We humans have had a long association with wild animals. For all but the last few thousand years of our two million years, we have depended on them for our very existence. We were hunters in our early days, drifting along with the game herds, dipping into that seemingly inexhaustible river of life for our food and clothing. When the herds prospered, we are well; when hard times came on them, our bellies shrank. So close was our relationship with wild animals, we called them our brothers.
The Chinese and Egyptians were the first to establish collections of wild animals. About five thousand years ago, Chinese emperors maintained animal parks for their private use, usually hunting. The Pharaohs of Egypt sent expeditions into the interior of Africa to collect animals for royal menageries. Later, Roman legions sent back wild animals, along with human slaves, from their conquests. Often these two – animals and humans – ended up pitted against each other in gladiatorial battles for their captors’ entertainment.
The first true zoo was built in France by Louis XIV, but it was modern only in comparison with what had existed before. Louis’ wild animals were housed in champed, dirty cages, often by themselves, and fed food which rarely approximated their natural diet. Mortality rates were high, but little attention was given to this; dead animals could be replaced easily from the rivers of wildlife still flowing in the wilderness.
At the turn of the 20th century the first modern zoo was designed and built at Stellingen, near Hamburg, Germany. It had a minimum of cages and barred enclosures; animals were exhibited in large, “natural” surroundings of artificial mountains, plains and caves, usually with others of their species.
And now I want to tell you about the most famous zoo in the world –
The San-Diego Zoo.
In Began with a Roar
The San Diego Zoo, established in 1916, was far different from today's grand; exotic, zoological garden. For the most part, it grew from a small collection of animals held in traditional circus like cages that formed a portion of the city's 1915-1916 Panama-California International Exposition held in Balboa Park. After the close of the Exposition, a San Diego physician, Dr. Harry Wegeforth, rescued these animals and started the present Zoo. He would later recall how it all began:
On September 16, 1916, as I was returning to my office after performing an operation at St. Joseph Hospital, I drove down Sixth Avenue and heard the roaring of the lions in the cages at the Exposition then being held in Balboa Park.
I turned to my brother, Paul, who was riding with me, and half jokingly, half wishfully, said, "Wouldn't it be splendid if San Diego had a zoo! You know ...I think I'll start one."
Wegeforth's idea, with the help of other interested San Diegans, would take shape and prosper over the years. Even as a child, growing up in
Baltimore, Maryland, he was fascinated by animals. He regularly staged
"circuses" in his backyard, using toy animals and stitched-together flour sacks for a "big top" tent. This interest went far beyond normal childish play, because young Harry had done extensive research on the real-life behavior and characteristics of his animal menagerie and enthusiastically explained all of this to visitors at his "performances."
Later on, as an adult, Wegeforth obtained a medical degree and moved to San Diego in 1908 to set up his practice. The work of building the Zoo, however, was soon to consume almost all of his time. It was a gamble and a dream that he lived daily, but a task he relished.
Together with four other men—Dr. Paul Wegeforth, Dr. Fred Baker, Dr.
Joseph H. Thompson, and Frank Stephens—Wegeforth founded the Zoological
Society of San Diego on October 2,1916. In 1921, the City of San Diego granted the Society its present home in Balboa Park, and, by 1922,
Wegeforth, a few staff members, and a small collection of animals had begun moving in.
Even at this early date, Wegeforth was promoting a zoo that was different from most in existence at that time, including demerits that would, as years passed, result in its being called the "world's greatest zoo." For example, he envisioned a zoological garden where animals could be integrated with plants in pleasing settings with no bars or traditional cages to obstruct a visitor's view. He promoted the idea of grotto and moat enclosures—something just being tried in European zoos and almost unknown in America.
While riding around the Zoo grounds on his Arabian stallion, Wegeforth would map out in his mind the location of exhibits. Mesas would hold hoofed mammals, reptiles, and birds; the canyons would be reserved for bears and cats. In Johnny Appleseed fashion, he scattered and planted seeds for the new plants he desired. Roads that were laid out for the first bus tours are still used today.