San Diego Zoo Global in San Diego, Calif., is celebrating a tremendous milestone this year: our centennial—100 years of dedication to protecting wildlife and wild places.
It was in 1916 when a San Diego physician by the name of Dr. Harry Wegeforth was driving down Sixth Avenue with his brother, Paul, after the close of the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition, and they heard a lion roaring in Balboa Park. It was a moment of inspiration—Dr. Wegeforth turned to his brother and said, “Wouldn’t it be splendid if San Diego had a zoo? You know, I think I’ll start one.”
The rest is history—100 years of trials and triumphs, innovation and vision, extraordinary people and amazing animals, coming together to build San Diego Zoo Global. The roar has been an important part of our history ever since those early days, a symbol of “roaring forward” to conserve endangered species in habitats worldwide. What began with one man and one lion has become the combined voices and dedication of millions on behalf of species everywhere.
A Tradition of Saving Species
Dr. Wegeforth was a firm believer in science, and from the start he had plans for a research and veterinary hospital. The Zoo established a research committee in 1925, and the Ellen Browning Scripps Zoological Hospital and Biological Research Institute opened in 1927. Dr. Harry even brought his own medical knowledge into play, serving as a consultant to the Zoo veterinarians and studying animal tuberculosis, cancer and hoof and mouth disease at the Zoo laboratories.
In 1932, the Zoo hired a veterinarian who was equally enthusiastic about research: Dr. Charles Schroeder. Dr. Schroeder modeled himself after Dr. Harry, and his work at the Zoo included influencing the emerging veterinary discipline for exotic animals. He focused on treatment and care that used preventative procedures and learned from illness and disease. He conducted studies of animal physiology and behavior and published papers about his findings. Along with Dr. Harry and Zoo director Belle Benchley, he saw declines taking place in populations of animals in the wild and became concerned with the need for conservation measures.
Dr. Schroeder left the Zoo but returned as director in 1954, with big plans. It was becoming clear to him that the old zoo model of displaying animals was no longer enough. Zoos needed to develop self-sustaining breeding groups for their own collections and to breed endangered species to help increase populations, as well as provide a safe haven for species declining in the wild. In 1966, Dr. Schroeder hosted the first international conference on the role of zoos in conservation, as part of the San Diego Zoo’s 50th anniversary.
Developing the San Diego Wild Animal Park
Dr. Schroeder’s vision for the future of zoos included a “backcountry breeding facility” with room to breed and house large groups of animals. He began planning and settled on a location in San Pasqual Valley, 30 miles north of the San Diego Zoo. He took groups out to a ridge overlooking the land and animatedly described his vision, pointing out where he would put each feature. Some were enthralled by the idea; others thought he was crazy. But Dr. Schroeder, often described as stubbornly optimistic and irrepressible, would not take no for an answer. It took nine years, many obstacles and passing a bond proposition on the San Diego 1970 ballot before he knew that his San Diego Wild Animal Park was really going to happen.
Dedicated Center for Conservation Research
For many years, board member and research committee chair Dr. Kurt Benirschke had discussed with Dr. Schroeder and others the idea of creating a more formal arm of the organization dedicated to research. Dr. Benirschke worked with then Zoo director Charles Bieler and the research committee to propose a full-fledged department: the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES). Upon accepting the proposal, the board of trustees told Dr. Benirschke, “It’s a good idea—you do it.” In 1975, he stepped down from the board, and starting with two technicians and a secretary in the Zoo veterinary hospital, he got to work.
Dr. Benirschke recruited scientists to join CRES and establish seven divisions. The initial goal was to study what species needed to reproduce successfully in zoos. He also established the Frozen Zoo®, a bank of cryogenically preserved cells and tissue samples as a genetic archive for thousands of rare and endangered species. By the 1980s, the Zoological Society of San Diego became involved in conservation efforts through breeding and propagation at the Zoo and the Park, and staff was involved in field research. During Dr. Werner Heuschle’s tenure as CRES director, starting in 1986, funding gained momentum through a conservation endowment, and international projects became a focus, working with conservation partners.
A Time for Change
Most people assumed that the Zoological Society simply ran the San Diego Zoo; they weren’t aware it also had conservation efforts in many countries. CRES was known within the scientific community, but not by the public. The name was too long to be memorable, and there was nothing that tied the name to the Zoo. It was time for a change.
Work began internally to redefine the purpose and goals of the organization’s research arm and to determine a name that would reflect them. The new name chosen in 2011 was the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Dr. Allison Alberts, current chief conservation and research officer, and her team felt the new identity gave their research more recognition; it also connected them more clearly to the well-known San Diego Zoo.
Embracing a Global Identity
Changing the identity of CRES was one result of a larger discussion about the future of the Zoological Society of San Diego. Chief Executive Officer Douglas Myers had initiated the idea that the organization was now much more than its parks and that its mission should emphasize its international reach. The executive team felt this would also help with fundraising, letting people know the impact of their donations would be felt far afield. But terms like worldwide, international and global felt audacious. Was the Zoological Society of San Diego ready for this step?
Ultimately, Myers made the strategic decision to transform the Zoological Society into a conservation organization, emphasizing conservation efforts first and foremost. He and staff members worked with consultants to conduct extensive research about rebranding the organization and creating a new guiding vision. They investigated and deliberated about how to rename and unify a collection of entities that had developed over the course of nearly a century. The result was that the Zoological Society of San Diego became San Diego Zoo Global, with the new vision of fighting against extinction. A strategic plan was developed to move the organization ahead in that direction, one species at a time.
Solving the Wild Animal Park Dilemma
While the Safari Park had excelled at caring for critically endangered animals, it hadn’t always excelled at communicating what it could offer potential visitors—or how it differed from its more famous sibling, the San Diego Zoo. Within the organization, there were discussions about whether to close the Park to visitors or reduce its days of operation, and it regularly operated at a loss. Myers was convinced that a new tack was necessary.
However, while the Wild Animal Park may not have been profitable, it had its die-hard supporters, and many Zoological Society members, donors and staff members didn’t like the idea of change. As part of the organizational rebranding deliberation, the new name San Diego Zoo Safari Park emerged. The name distinguished the Park from the Zoo, and captured the spirit of its safari experiences. It also resonated with people who did not know the Park. But rolling out the new identity resulted in considerable pushback from inside and outside the organization.
In 2011, the new name launched. Park Director Robert McClure said he expected “at least a year or two for things to turn around. But by the time we hit summer that first year, it was clear that it was turning.” Within a year, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park was earning more revenue than ever. Despite the controversy, the Safari Park had found its unique identity and footing, and it now continues to operate at a profit.
Not everyone inside or outside the organization agreed that the organizational rebranding initiative was the right solution. But once it was deployed, frugally and in stages, people started to see that each new brand helped its part of the organization and strengthened the whole. Though it was painful at points, the rebranding helped demonstrate not just that change was possible, but that fresh ideas were crucial to propel the organization into the future.
Roaring Forward to Save Species from Extinction
As San Diego Zoo Global now celebrates our centennial, we are also setting the stage for the next 100 years. San Diego Zoo Global is dedicated to saving species from extinction, igniting a passion for wildlife and providing a sanctuary and refuge for animals and for people. The challenges facing wildlife today are unprecedented. But through collaboration with communities and colleagues, San Diego Zoo Global stands ready to “roar forward” and help create a future where people and wildlife can live and thrive together.
Karen Worley is the creative content manager for the Marketing Department at San Diego Zoo Global.