The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1978, Volume 24, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Librarian, Zoological Society of San Diego

Images from the article

ON WEDNESDAY, September 27, 1916, news of the war in Europe dominated the first two pages of the San Diego Union: “Germans’ Spirit Broken at Verdun Claim Allies; 30,000 Prisoners Captured…Greek King to Declare War Soon…500 Army Officers Urge Constantine to Enter War…Combles and Thiepval Fall Before Attacks of Victorious Allies.”

In the midst of such headlines, and in a prominent place on page two, there appeared, “San Diego Zoo, Plan of Animal Life Students; May Form Society to Support Large Collection.” The article beneath the headline announced a call from Dr. Harry Wegeforth for interested parties to join him and his brother, Dr. Paul Wegeforth, in forming a society to develop and support a zoological garden. Two subsequent founders, Drs. Baker and Thompson, were mentioned by name in the appeal. They responded immediately. The four physicians convinced naturalist Frank Stephens to join them, and the Zoological Society of San Diego was born.

Frank Stephens was born in New York in the gold-rush year of 1849; twenty-four years later he headed west in a mule-drawn wagon. Long recognized as the only mammalogist on the Pacific Coast, he took part in an 1891 survey of Death Valley and a 1907 University of California expedition to Alaska. He wrote a book, California Mammals, and was active in the San Diego Society of Natural History. Stephens was a member of the Board of Directors of the Natural History Society, in which he served as secretary, assistant secretary, vice-president, curator of birds and mammals, and editor of the Transactions which he prompted the Society to publish. His wife Kate was also a naturalist, and served as the Museum’s curator of mollusks. When the Museum moved to a new location in 1917, Stephens became its director, serving through 1920. He was also director of the fledgling Zoo during its early lean period, for no pay. He died in 1936 at the age of eighty-seven.

Commander J. C. Thompson was a neurosurgeon assigned to Navy Hospital. Entomology was a hobby, and he also showed an interest in the herpetofauna of San Diego County. He offered to supervise the construction of a reptile house, announcing that he already had plans for one. He was elected vice-president of the Zoological Society, and was appointed with Dr. Harry Wegeforth and Frank Stephens to draw up the Articles of Incorporation and the By-Laws. Thompson is given credit for much of the planning of the Zoo’s education program. In a news article he wrote in 1916, he described the arrangement of exhibits as they would appear in Balboa Park’s Pepper Grove, an early choice for the Zoo’s location. He also announced that there would be guidebooks, text books and free lectures. After having been presented with a Kodiak bear lent to the Zoo by Captain Prideaux of the U. S. collier Nanshan, Thompson announced that the first lecture would be about bears. It must have been an interesting lecture. “Caesar,” the Kodiak, had been kept as a mascot and pet by the crew of the Nanshan until she got too large and unruly. According to Dr. Wegeforth, none of them knew anything about crating bears, and didn’t know quite how to get her to the Zoo. With no truck, and no expertise in handling bears, it was decided to put a collar and chain around the bear’s neck and let her ride to the Zoo with Thompson, seated beside him in the front of his car.

Thompson’s Zoo career was short. In April 1917, he tendered his resignation in order to leave on government duty. He was replaced on the Board of Directors by Joseph Sefton, Jr. Although he apparently maintained an interest in the Zoo, Thompson retired in San Francisco in the early 1930s and died there in 1943.

Dr. Fred Baker stayed on the Board of Directors until June 13, 1922. The first official meeting of the Board was held at the home of Drs. Fred and Charlotte Baker on October 2, 1916. Husband and wife, both physicians, had long been civic leaders in San Diego. Fred Baker served on the board of State Normal School, the forebear of San Diego State University, and served as president of the City Council, the San Diego County Medical Society and the Board of Education. He devoted a great deal of time to the Natural History Society, but is probably most noted for his part in founding the Marine Biological Institution, which became Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1925.

As a naturalist, Dr. Baker’s main interest was conchology. He gave his fine collection of shells to the San Diego Museum of Natural History, but had also collected specimens for the National Museum in Washington, D. C., the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, University of California at Berkeley, and, of course, Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In his medical practice he was an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist. In 1911, he served as surgeon and conchologist on the Stanford Expedition to Brazil. He was a recognized authority on the mollusks of Pacific North America and Brazil, and wrote several scientific papers on those subjects, most notably on Brazilian mollusks. Dr. Baker died in 1938. William E. Ritter, a close friend and colleague, wrote of him, “…to the very end Baker’s love of natural history was one of his foremost traits.”1

After beginning a promising medical career in Maryland, Dr. Paul Wegeforth joined his brother Harry’s San Diego practice in 1915. The two came from a large family. They had six half-brothers from their father’s two earlier marriages. The third marriage produced five sons and two daughters. All of the sons from this marriage studied medicine. Both Harry and Paul were surgeons for the Panama-California Exposition in 1916, “Dr. Harry,” as he was known, also serving on the Board of Directors of the Exposition for that year. Paul was the first secretary of the Zoological Society, although he probably became a founder just to support his brother. Paul was more interested in animal pathology and research in its relation to human diseases than in any other aspect of zoology. His interest in comparative medicine was shared by Dr. Harry. Paul resigned from the Board of Directors in mid-1917, to accept a commission in the Army. He became Chief of Neurosurgery at Camp Meade, Maryland. The popular young physician and surgeon died in 1923. His replacement on the Board was Thomas N. Faulconer, destined to have an interesting career with the Zoo.

Dr. Harry’s early history showed a lifelong interest in animals and circuses. He created his own circuses as a child, with stuffed animals whose natural history he studied in detail. For a brief period he ran away to become an aerialist with the circus, until an elder brother found him and brought him home. Undoubtedly the happiest and most significant years of his life were those spent developing the San Diego Zoo. During the twenty-five years that he led the Zoo he won the love of the community. He also generated controversy and aroused the ire of many, but even his adversaries admitted love and respect for him. The history of the San Diego Zoo and the history of Harry Wegeforth cannot be told separately.

1916 was the right time to start a new venture in San Diego. Still flushed with civic pride, the formerly sleepy little town was unwinding after a two-year celebration. Her citizens were ready for something new to replace the excitement of the Panama-California Exposition. The Exposition provided not only the animals to start the Zoo, but also the proper atmosphere. In 1909, Chamber of Commerce President, G. Aubrey Davidson, proposed that upon completion of the Panama Canal, San Diego, as the first American port of entry on the Pacific Coast north of the Canal, should have an exposition. It didn’t matter that few ships came into this port, or that San Diego was the smallest city ever to propose a world’s fair, or that San Francisco was already planning the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Plans went ahead, and the city that Davidson described as “. . .a struggling, overgrown country village, becalmed in the doldrums of its own despair”2 began to grow. San Diego’s population had been at a standstill for some time, but between 1909 and the opening of the fair it had increased from 35,000 to 60,000. The Exposition was originally planned for one year. Davidson states that between January 1 and December 31, 1915, three million attended, with every state in the Union and every nation in the world represented. It was decided that the Exposition should continue for another year. The 1916 fair opened on March 15, with Davidson serving as President of its Board of Directors. One of the new names on the Board for 1916 was that of Dr. Harry Wegeforth. The fair wasn’t as popular in its second year. Dr. Harry felt sympathy toward the animals in Balboa Park that had been part of the attractions at the Exposition, and was prompted to place the notice of intention to form a zoological society in the San Diego Union. Most of the animals scattered through the park were turned over to the new Zoo by the Park Department. A few animals which had come from the menagerie at the nearby Ocean Beach Wonderland, but were now owned by Mission Bay Corporation, were the first to be purchased by the Zoological Society.

Carl H. Heilbron and Colonel D. C. Collier were instrumental in securing the group for the Zoo. The Zoo’s collection remained in cages along Park Boulevard until 1922 when it moved to its present location. The intervening years were spent struggling to acquire funds to care for the animals, and in securing publicity and friends for the shoestring enterprise.

One of Dr. Harry’s great talents was his ability to attract people’s interest and their money to the Zoo. The list of names of those he convinced to support the Zoo with both time and money reads like a Who’s Who of San Diego in the early 20th century. Ellen Browning Scripps topped the list and was joined by John D. Spreckels, John Burnham, George W. Marston, Joseph Sefton, Jr., Ralph Granger, Frank C. Spalding and many others. Most of these people came forward after the Zoo moved to its permanent site.

The years from 1916 to 1922 were difficult. Although the Society had grown to 120 members by the end of 1916, and had raised $1,000 in four days by selling life memberships at $200 each, the money often went out faster than it came in. In January 1917, the Park Board agreed to furnish quarters in the park to establish a zoo, and further agreed to assist the Society in the Zoo’s maintenance. The monetary assistance from the Park Commission amounted to $15 per month. With more and more animals being donated to the Zoo, $15 per month didn’t go very far. The Society was still trying to decide if they could afford to purchase or assume care of the animals from Wonderland. At that time it cost $3.09 per day to care for the animals known as the “Isthmus animals,” held jointly by the Society, the Park Department and the Mission Bay Corporation. A month’s expenditure from January 13 to February 12 consisted of $45 for a keeper’s salary, $5.25 for horse meat for two animals, $9.42 for 156 loaves of bread, $5 for four bags of carrots, $29.90 for 2,500 pounds of hay, 60Ë for drinking pans, and 50Ë for medicine, the total coming to $95.77. In the same period, the collection had grown with the acquisition (mostly through donations) of the Kodiak bear “Caesar,” a badger, two Iynxes, a gray fox, a coyote, two golden eagles, two rails, a whipsnake and a white goose.

About this time W. H. Porterfield of the San Diego Sun attended a meeting of the Society’s Board of Directors and stated that he had long been interested in establishing a zoo in the park. He offered his services and those of the San Diego Sun as a medium of publicity to campaign for funds for the purchase and care of the Isthmus animals. In an effort to get members and donations, he suggested contacting the school authorities, so that the children could be “stimulated” to approach their parents. The Board decided to implement this campaign plan immediately. A month later, Porterfield was running a contest in the Sun in conjunction with a forthcoming circus. The Sun would give prizes to the best children’s stories about animals. Porterfield, as much a promoter as Dr. Harry soon proved to be, also arranged with the circus to charge children 50Ë admission, which would include a membership to the Junior Zoological Society. The circus would get 12Ë of each 50Ë admission. Two months later, the Society purchased the animals from the Mission Bay Corporation.

By the end of May, 1917, the Society had hired a new superintendent for the Zoo—a man who had been in charge of the zoo at Universal City. It had also been promised the Standard Oil Building from the Exposition (currently the site of Roosevelt Junior High School), as well as the canyon in front of it, and had had its allowance from the Park Commission raised to $25 per month. In addition, Mayor Louis J. Wilde promised that the City would offer $15 per month to aid in upkeep.

Dr. Harry had already started to earn his reputation as a bargainer and a trader. He announced to the Society Board that he could buy lumber worth $100 for $5, and out of this they would be able to build ten small cages and all the reptile cages they would need for a year. He also asked the Park Board for permission to trade two brown bear cubs for a polar bear. During the Park Boulevard years, Dr. Harry did a lot of animal trading. The first lion cubs that were born in those cages were sold to the City of Seattle, garnering publicity away from home.

The animals were eating themselves out of house and home, and by October 1917, the Society was out of funds again. Not one to worry about proper channels or procedure, Dr. Harry organized and held a field meet between the Marines and the Navy without the authorization of his Board. With an admission fee of only l0Ë, he was able to furnish the treasury with enough money to maintain the Society until the beginning of 1918.

Throughout 1918, the Society tried to get official ratification from the Park Commission that the grounds west of and across from the Standard Oil Building would be designated for the Zoo, and that the Zoo would have the use of the building as soon as it was vacated by the 21st Infantry. In exchange for the park land, the Zoological Society agreed “…to furnish the best collection of animals and reptiles on the Pacific Coast” as well as a professional staff, scientific and descriptive labels on the cages, and, among other things, free public lectures about the collection and natural history in general. The latter, of course, was already being done. Commander Thompson had initiated a program of lectures at the cages in 1916, and, from this, nature walks and lectures on other natural history subjects had evolved.

The discussions over land continued. Following a suggestion made by the City Attorney in 1917, that the Society would not be hampered by as much red tape if the animals were owned by the City and managed by the Society, a resolution was adopted by the Society Board. In return for a building in Balboa Park and a plot of ground set aside for a zoo and for research work, the Society would execute a bill of sale to the Board of Park Commissioners of the City of San Diego for all animals held by the Society. A few months later the City Council agreed to leave the Zoo’s management in the Society’s hands, and further promised to provide $125 per month to help with the Zoo’s maintenance.

About this time Dr. Harry resigned from the Society Board to accept a commission in the U. S. Army. Joseph Sefton, Jr. was elected president. Sefton served as president for almost five months before Dr. Harry resumed the post. This was the only period during his twenty-five year involvement with the Zoo that Dr. Harry wasn’t its president.

By late 1919 the problem of a permanent location for the Zoo was still not resolved, but it became increasingly apparent that sturdier housing was needed for the bears. Caesar, who had ridden to the Zoo in the front seat of Commander Thompson’s auto, was now frequently destroying her cage and deciding for herself where she would spend any given day. Heavy sheet metal and 2x4s were no deterrent to Caesar. So, with $1300, the Society set out to build a bear grotto that they knew would cost $2500 to construct. Since there was not enough money, corners had to be cut, and the most obvious one was to omit a concrete floor in the grotto. The wall was buried deep into the ground to discourage any digging by the bears. The black bear and the polar bear were no problem, but Caesar tunneled under the wall the first night and did a great deal of damage to the enclosure. Locked into the sleeping quarters, she methodically began to bend the steel rods that divided the bedrooms. Ellen Browning Scripps made the first donation to build a proper grotto.

By 1921 the City Council had agreed to appropriate $5,000 for maintenance and improvements to the Zoo, and in the fall the Zoo’s current site was approved by City Ordinance as a permanent location. Nathaniel Slaymaker drew up the plans for the Zoo, which were also approved, and Dr. Harry was instructed to begin renovations of the Harvester Building for a reptile house. The Zoo finally had a home and was ready to begin a new era. One thing, however, hadn’t changed. Now that it was time to begin construction, the Zoo was broke again.


1. William E. Ritter, “Dr. Fred Baker,” Science Magazine, July 15, 1938, p. 48.

2. G. Aubrey Davidson, “History of the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 and the Panama-California International Exposition of 1916,” in Carl H. Heilbron, ed., History of San Diego County (San Diego: The San Diego Press Club, 1936), p. 401.


Heilbron, Carl H., ed. History of San Diego County.San Diego: The San Diego Press Club, 1936.

“Profile: Frank Stephens,” Environment Southwest, October-November 1974, p. 10.

Ritter, William E. “Dr. Fred Baker.” Science Magazine, July 15, 1938, pp. 48-49.

San Diego Union, September 27, 1916.

Shaw, Marjorie B. “Profile: Dr. Fred Baker.” Zoonooz, February, 1976.

Wegeforth, Harry M. and Morgan, Neil. It Began With A Roar. San Diego: Zoological Society of San Diego, 1953.

Zoological Society of San Diego. Minutes of Meetings of the Board of Directors, 1916-1921.


THE PHOTOGRAPHS for this article have been supplied through the courtesy of the Zoological Society of San Diego