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The Unexpected Origins of the San Diego Zoo

Did you know that the history of the San Diego Zoo spans over 100 years? How we came to have this now-famous facility in our city is a rather unusual story.

It turns out that the Zoo’s creation was the result of a highly unlikely confluence of seemingly unrelated events: The 1914 opening of the Panama Canal and 1916 storm damage to what was then the biggest roller coaster on the West Coast.

How do these events lead to a collection of animals needing a home? Let’s get into the details.

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1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition

San Francisco was just recovering from the famously devastating 1906 earthquake in 1909, but in that year competed with San Diego to host the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition world’s fair.

The official exposition would celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, after ten years of very challenging construction under the control of the United States.

Both coastal California port cities expected to benefit enormously from the ship access provided by the Panama Canal. And, both municipalities viewed hosting this exposition and the federal and state funding that would accompany it, as a show of support for their respective city and its bright future of growth.

At the time, San Francisco’s population was roughly ten times larger than San Diego’s 35,000 residents. To cut to the chase, San Diego lost out to San Francisco.

1915 Panama-California Exposition

The boosters of San Diego’s failed bid, be they wonderfully persistent civic visionaries (or just sore losers), elected to proceed anyway. They did so without federal money and with little funding from the state and created a competitive but much smaller, similarly titled, and simultaneous 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego.

The site chosen for San Diego’s Exposition was a mostly open space then called City Park. It was re-named Balboa Park during construction after the Spanish explorer/conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who was the first European to cross Central America and see the Pacific Ocean in 1513.

(Do you see the connection between Balboa, the Panama Canal, and the Exposition? The canal would make this economically-valuable crossing — which had remained difficult and deadly for 400 years — much easier, safer, and faster.)

The Exposition proved wildly successful. Organizers extended it for another full year and renamed it the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition.

Animals at the Exposition

The story of San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition, which was held for two years starting on January 1, 2015, is a very interesting one on its own.

But, to steer this narrative back to animals, one of the attractions it was most known for was that peacocks, pheasants, and pigeons freely roamed the grounds and were fed by visitors. Among the myriad other features were pens featuring exotic animals.

Some of these exotic animals were rented for $40 per day from Wonderland amusement park in the Ocean Beach neighborhood of San Diego, which had just opened in 1913. One of the amusement park’s promoted attractions was a “menagerie” that included, lions, bears, leopards, and 56 varieties of monkeys.

Wonderland’s animals would never return to the amusement park. Why? 

What Happened to Wonderland?

Ironically, it was the opening of the Panama-California Exposition in 1915 that led to Wonderland’s closure. The amusement park saw a considerable drop off in attendance that was attributed to the Exposition’s opening.

To make things worse, in January 1916, a winter storm destroyed its biggest attraction, the Blue Streak Racer, which was the largest roller coaster on the West Coast at the time. The roller coaster was dismantled and sent to Santa Monica. Tides and storms continued to degrade the park.

A Lion Roared

Dr. Harry M. Wedgeforth was a San Diego surgeon who served on the Exposition’s board of directors. By his own account, upon hearing a lion roar while driving with his brother down Sixth Avenue, he remarked that it would be wonderful to have a zoo in San Diego.

Likely knowing that the Wonderland animals would have nowhere to go after the Exposition closed, he founded the Zoological Society of San Diego on October 2, 1916.

It took years after that to garner the support necessary for the Zoo, which began as a long row of cages along Park Boulevard with the leftover animals. To feed them, Dr. Wedgeforth asked local fishers, ranchers, and farmers for donations of fish, hay, and second-tier produce.

Fast forward through the ups and downs of initial financial hardship and World War I. Finally, a parcel of land in Balboa Park was set aside for the Zoo in 1921. The San Diego Zoo animals moved in the following year. Famous local philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps paid for a fence to be built around the Zoo grounds so that they could charge admission and finance their operations. Tickets were 10 cents each.

Finally, the menagerie had a permanent home.

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