Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
The Zoo Lady. Belle Benchley and the San Diego Zoo. By Margaret Poynter. Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1980. Illustrations. 80 pages. $7.95.
Reviewed by Kenhelm W. Stott, Jr., former San Diego Zoo curator and author of numerous book and articles including Exploring with Martin and Osa Johnson (1978).
Belle J. Benchley was a household word in San Diego for several decades. Her best seller books, beginning with My Life in a Man-Made Jungle ultimately brought her international fame. Somehow, the San Diego Zoo that she and Dr. Harry M. Wegeforth created continues to receive worldwide publicity, but her reputation on the local level has almost ceased to exist, although to her peers, she is still recognized as one of the all time greats among zoo directors.
Margaret Poynter’s little book, although intended for children, serves as well to remind local adults that they owe a great deal to her. The author succeeds admirably in distilling the qualities that made Mrs. Benchley a giant in her field. While the book briefly treats her childhood, the narrative mainly concerns that period when, at the age of forty, Mrs. Benchley went through the trauma of divorce and was forced to find employment to support herself and her son. In 1924 she went to the San Diego Zoo as book-keeper.
From the first day onward for many years, Mrs. Benchley “brown bagged” it and devoted her lunch hour to acquainting herself with the zoo, its structures and of course its wild animal exhibits. Putting her remarkable powers of observation to work, she found situations not to her liking and reported them to “Dr. Harry.” Dr. Wegeforth had founded the zoo, and was president of its board of directors throughout his life. His reply was almost in-variably, “You take care of it.”
In 1927, he appointed her Manager and Executive Secretary. “Go ahead and run the place,” he instructed her. “You’re doing it anyway.” Her rapport with her animal friends was a rare quality indeed. She loved them and the affection was reciprocal. She was so attuned to them and concerned about their welfare that she frequently could detect illness in an animal before it was evident either to its keeper or zoo veterinarians. If she said, “That animal doesn’t look quite right to me,” no matter how healthy it appeared to keeper and vet, it invariably developed some serious ailment days or weeks after her original observation.
The Benchley-Wegeforth relationship was a close one but often stormy. Disagreements were not infrequent and assumed the proportions of the explosion of a hydrogen bomb. Yet anyone who dared criticize Dr. Harry to Mrs. Benchley or vice versa found himself looking down the muzzle of a cannon. Each felt free to complain about the other but it was strictly a family affair.
While away at college I heard rumblings of a major battle between the two. On my next visit to San Diego I was foolhardy enough to observe, “Well, I hear that you and Dr. Harry have been at it again.” Mrs. Benchley looked at me as if Dracula had suddenly appeared beside her. She announced, “Dr. Harry and I have never-I repeat NEVER-had a fight in our lives.” Gradually, the mushroom shaped cloud subsided. I might add that it was a mistake I never repeated.
Dr. Harry once told her fondly, “Well, we have made a good team, haven’t we, Old Girl?” No accolade ever meant as much to Mrs. Benchley. When Dr. Harry died in 1941, she in utter disconsolation told me, “I’ve never felt so alone in my life.” And throughout the tenure of her life at the zoo she often commented, “Oh, how I wish Dr. Harry could see this.” When some new rare exhibit arrived, or when some perplexing problem arose she’d mumble aloud, “I wonder what Dr. Harry would have done?”
Poynter’s mini-biography, although aimed at a youthful readership, is in no instance guilty of patronizing. Her style is straighforward and she presents adult relationships and problems in a fashion that indicates she is a strong advocate of the “Children Are People Too” approach to writing. Her bounty of anecdotes regarding various of Mrs. Benchley’s animal pets never descends to the Bambi syndrome.
The author has succeeded brilliantly in capturing the essence that made Mrs. Benchley so special, perhaps more effectively than any of the hundreds who in years past interviewed “The Zoo Lady” for magazine articles or on film. I have been devoted to Mrs. Benchley from 1927 on when, at the age of eight, I first went to work for her. After a friendship that lasted more than five decades, I find this a book I would like to have written. Margaret Poynter has achieved a minor miracle in her verbal portrait of an exceptional person. It is one that should easily achieve its primary aim, that of providing a source of inspiration (and entertainment) for young readers. To older readers who knew and loved Mrs. Benchley it serves also as a long overdue tribute.