The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 2001, Volume 47, Number 4
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Reviews

Kyle E. Ciani, Reviews Editor

Mister Zoo: The Life and Legacy of Dr. Charles Schroeder, The World-Famous San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park’s Legendary Director

Douglas G. Myers with Lynda Rutledge Stephenson, San Diego: San Diego Zoological Society, 1999. 271 p. Illustrations, index. $28.00.

Reviewed by Stephen A. Colston, Department of History, San Diego State University, who conducted several interviews of Charles Schroeder as Co-Director of the Zoological Society of San Diego Oral History Project.

Charles Robbins Schroeder (1901-91) made many significant contributions to the development of the San Diego Zoological Society and to the broader disciplines of wildlife zoology and zoo administration. It is, then, altogether fitting that an entire volume has been devoted to chronicling this remarkable man’s professional achievements which span more than two-thirds of the twentieth century. Douglas G. Myers, former general manager of the Society’s Wild Animal Park and, since 1985, executive director of the Society’s San Diego Zoo, has with the collaboration of free-lance writer Lynda Rutledge Stephenson, reconstructed Schroeder’s life as a scientist, administrator, and entrepreneur.

A native of Brooklyn, Charles Schroeder earned his Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine in 1929 from Washington State University. He launched his veterinary career with Lederle Laboratories in Pearl Island, New York, by developing various antibiotics and vaccines. In 1932, Schroeder was hired by the San Diego Zoo as a pathologist. By the time he left the zoo five years later, he had grafted the role of zoo veterinarian to that of pathologist and also assumed the responsibilities of “bacteriologist, virologist, serologist, grounds manager, clinician, research director, forage buyer, and poultry pathologist for the county…[as well as]…self-appointed zoo photographer” (p. 26).

Attracted by a higher salary and the prospects of engaging in more extensive scientific researches, he assumed the position of veterinarian of the New York Zoological Society (popularly known as the Bronx Zoo) in 1937. Lured back to the San Diego Zoo in 1939 by zoo founder Dr. Harry Wegeforth, Schroeder remained at the zoo for only two years when, owing to economic reasons, he returned to Lederle Laboratories. He became Lederle’s production manager until 1953 when he left that position to assume the directorship of the San Diego Zoo, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1972.

It was during his two-decade tenure as zoo director that Schroeder deservedly earned the title of “Mr. Zoo,” something that was conferred on him not only by many San Diego Zoo staff but by a number of zoo administrators and curators throughout the world. Schroeder brought the business acumen he had acquired through his long association with Lederle Laboratories to his new post. He redesigned the San Diego Zoo both administratively and physically. Among his many innovations, he improved the food and merchandising enterprises to increase the Zoo’s revenues, installed the Skyfari aerial tramway, modernized the animal hospital, enlarged the research staff, constructed animal enclosures with moats to replace cages, and created the Children’s Zoo. When he began his directorship, the Zoo’s annual budget was $500,000, but by the time he retired this figure had increased to more than $12 million. During this period he also delivered and published popular and scholarly scientific papers, and served as the presidents of the San Diego Natural History Association, the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, and the International Union of Directors of Zoological Gardens.

As impressive as all of these activities were, his role as the driving force behind the creation of the Zoological Society’s Wild Animal Park continues to receive the greatest number of accolades from both the public and the scientific community. Myers and Stephenson spare no ink in describing how Schroeder with bulldogged tenacity shepherded the north county facility from his conception in 1959 to its opening in May 1972, only three months before his retirement. Schroeder envisioned a new kind of zoological park that would allow animals to roam free while confining their human visitors to a monorail tram, and that would also serve as a breeding preserve for endangered wild species. While his head entertained such dreams, his feet were firmly grounded in the political and economic realities he would have to manipulate in order to transform his vision into a reality. Among his many contests were his struggles to gain support for his plan from his own trustees, several of whom opposed him not in principle but in the belief that the park would overly strain the Zoological Society’s financial resources. But Schroeder remained undaunted, and he was instrumental in creating a committee that would generate community support for a bond financing the construction of the Wild Animal Park. His efforts led to fruition in November 1970 when 75.9 percent of the voters approved a $6 million dollar bond for the building of his dream.

While Myers and Stephenson engagingly recount the major events in Charles Schroeder’s long and fascinating professional life, there are two features about their book which some readers will doubtlessly find unsettling. First, the authors’ writing style is essentially conversational, and the informal tone of their text is accentuated by the absence of source citations. Second, the authors have eschewed impartiality for an unabashed celebration of their subject. Had they utilized, for example, an oral history interview (copies of which are in the San Diego State University and Zoo libraries) of the late Kenhelm Stott, former Zoo General Curator, they would have offered readers a considerably different opinion of Schroeder’s administrative style than the plaudits on this subject which resound throughout the book.

In sum, this biography is essentially a vanity press publication intended for a large general audience and, while the book merits reading, it should be examined with this characteristic in mind.


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