Benchley, Belle (1882–1973)

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Benchley, Belle (1882–1973)

American director of the San Diego Zoo from 1927 to 1953. Born Belle Jennings on August 28, 1882, near Larned, Kansas; died on December 17, 1973; eldest daughter and one of eight children of Fred Merrick Jennings and Ida Belle (Orrell) Jennings; educated at Roosevelt School (in the Jennings home); attended Russ High School; graduated from San Diego Teachers College, 1902; married William L. Benchley, on June 25, 1906 (divorced 1924); children: son Edward Jennings.

Nothing in the first 40 years of Belle Benchley's life hinted at a career as director of the San Diego Zoo. Born in Kansas, she grew up in Point Loma, California, where the family moved when she was four. Wandering the hills and beaches of the Point with her eight younger brothers and sisters, she developed a healthy respect for animals and learned to identify birds, shells, and flowers, but these experiences were nothing out of the ordinary. Following graduation from San Diego Teachers College, she taught school on the Pala Indian Reservation for three years, before her marriage to William Benchley in 1906. While raising her son Edward, she served two consecutive terms on the Fullerton, California, Board of Education.

In 1924, Belle and William divorced, leaving her with a teenage son to support. She returned to San Diego and took a bookkeeping

course. After working part time in the County Assessor's office, Benchley accepted a position as temporary bookkeeper in the Zoological Garden of San Diego in 1925. About an hour into her new job, a call came in from a man who wanted to settle a bet with a friend. "How long is the tail of a hippopotamus?" he asked, and Benchley realized her work was to exceed the conventional duties of a bookkeeper. His was the first of many telephone queries that challenged Benchley's curiosity and sent her in search of information. Her duties also included overseeing the care and feeding of some 800 animals, checking that visitors paid their dime admission fee, raising money for payroll, soliciting grocers for food for animal feed, and speaking to civic groups about the zoo. This involved adapting to incredibly long hours and a variety of unusual problems. Later, when asked what a zoo director does, Benchley would answer, "whatever the day brings forth."

After trying out several new directors and finding them lacking (including Frank Buck of "bring 'em back alive" fame), the zoo's founder, Dr. Harry Wedgeforth, decided to take a risk and appoint Benchley, only in her second year, head of the San Diego Zoo, with the title executive secretary. (More recent heads have been named "director," a title that eluded Benchley until after her retirement, when her letterhead title read "director emeritus.") Throughout her career, Benchley remained dedicated to carrying out Wedgeforth's plans for the zoo, though she often did battle with him. Until his death in 1941, she referred to him as "Dr. Harry," while he called her "girl," or, as the years progressed, "old girl."

Benchley soon found that she had a talent, hitherto unsuspected, for dealing with animals. In her book My Life in a Man-Made Jungle, published in 1940 after some 13 years on the job, she described herself as housekeeper, dietitian, consulting physician, and homemaker to an adopted family of animals. Benchley made it her business to learn each animal's likes, dislikes, and eccentricities and discovered that they were as complex and temperamental as human beings.

The acquisition of two gorillas, the largest in captivity, put the San Diego Zoo on the map. Benchley, who had obtained Mbongo and Ngagi at great expense, fell in love with her charges, stopping by each day to proffer them treats with hopes that they would become the largest in the world. Her grandmotherly relationship with the apes attracted a good deal of publicity for the zoo and is documented in her book My Friends, the Apes. When Mbongo died suddenly in 1942, Benchley wrote, "Never has the death of any animal in the San Diego Zoo created so much personal feeling of sorrow or regret as that of Mbongo."

But her respect and affection for the gorillas extended to all animals; she would not tolerate poor treatment of any under her care. Benchley drove through the zoo each day to check up on things. She also championed the trend toward the natural habitat, where animals could be displayed without undo confinement; the San Diego climate was ideal for this type of environmental exhibit. In an effort to protect the lives of animals taken from their natural habitat or bred within the Zoo, Benchley also consulted scientists in the design of exhibits that could include family groups. Although she envisioned that her animals led full and contented lives in the zoo setting, she was criticized by those who believed—as many still do—that certain species suffer when removed from their natural habitat.

During Benchley's initial days as director, she encountered some who resented the idea of a woman zoo director, but through the years she became affectionately known as the "Zoo Lady." Benchley gained notoriety through her speaking engagements (in 1939 alone, she gave some 150 lectures) and through radio broadcasts, appearances in newsreels, and articles she contributed to Nature Magazine, Westways, Recreation, and Zoonooz (the publication of the Zoological Society of San Diego). Her lively, anecdotal books also brought her public attention.

A year into her tenure, Benchley instituted the school-bus program, utilizing the zoo's buses to pick up children, bring them to the facility for an educational tour, and return them to their school. In 1985, the education programs benefitted over 150,000 students. She served as a mentor to many of her young staff members, or "pups," as she called them, some of whom stayed at the zoo for years and rose to important positions. Also instrumental in recruiting women as zoo keepers, Benchley hired numbers of them during the war when the male working pool was reduced. Zoo attendance climbed under Benchley's leadership. By the summer of 1951, yearly attendance exceeded one million visitors.

Benchley's retirement in 1953 was marked by Belle Benchley Day on December 10. At a farewell civic dinner attended by over 800 guests, she received countless tributes and the gift of a trip around the world. In 1963, she returned to the zoo for the dedication of Belle Benchley Plaza. Subsequent awards included the city's Outstanding Citizens Award, presented by the mayor of San Diego on September 5, 1969. The citation accompanying the award called her the first woman in the world to manage a zoo and cited her for making the San Diego Zoo "the greatest in the world." Belle Benchley died on December 17, 1973. The plaque on her gravestone bears the outline of a gorilla.


Block, Maxine, ed. Current Biography 1940. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1940.

Hahn, Emily. Eve and the Apes. NY: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988.

Norwood, Vera. Made From This Earth. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Williams, Betty Jo F. "Belle Benchley and Me," a paper delivered to The Wednesday Club, 1986.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts