By JILL DIAMOND | Uptown News
Among the many memorable strong women in San Diego over the decades was Belle Benchley, a former bookkeeper for the San Diego Zoo from 1927 to 1953 and who later became the zoo’s first female director.
According to her paternal granddaughter Laurel Benchley Costello who resides in San Diego: “After the turnover of several male directors or secretaries, Dr. Harry Wegeforth, the founder of the zoo, gave up looking for the right man because he knew who he wanted, even though there had never been a woman head of a zoo, he chose my grandmother.
“‘You might as well run the place,’” Costello said he told her grandmother, “You’re already doing it anyway.’”
And she did.
Benchley was the only female zoo director for all her tenure, which included “guiding the zoo through the Great Depression and the Second World War,” Costello said.
Who was Belle?
In 1925, Belle J. Benchley was a divorced homemaker with a son to raise. She returned from Fullerton to her parents in Ocean Beach and decided to find work with the city of San Diego. She was later hired as a temporary bookkeeper by Wegeforth, who at the time had a home in Bankers Hill, and “never let her leave.”
During her time at with the zoo, she was the executive secretary (basically director) where she became immensely proud of her work, the San Diego Zoo and of the staff. In this role, she ran the operations of the zoo, did the public relations and public speaking, which Dr. Harry hated, and wrote and edited ZooNooZ for many years, her granddaughter said.
Benchley also toured the entire grounds of the zoo daily by car looking for any problems. She nurtured a staff dedicated to the zoo and most importantly in her mind, the animals.
“As the only woman zoo director during her entire career, she became world-famous. She guested on many radio shows and traveled to meetings of zoo directors,” Costello said.
Benchley also had a great sense of humor unless she thought the zoo was being short-changed in some way. She was a great businesswoman, and according to Costello, Benchley kept the zoo afloat through the Great Depression and World War II by sharp trading and watching the budget like a hawk.
When she retired, the city of San Diego gave her a retirement party with 800 people and a trip around the world where she got the gift that meant so much to her — “a watch from the zoo staff with the inscription ‘From your fellow employees.’”
“She believed she was the coordinator and coach of a team, not a dictator. Although she was not shy about making the hard decisions, her door was always open,” Costello said.
Staying in the area
In the 1940s, her grandma moved to a house in Mission Hills at 4127 Palmetto Way, which is still standing among its four neighbors, at least one of which qualifies for Mills Act status.
A strong woman who Benchley Costello always looked up to, she saw her grandma often when she was growing up in the San Diego area.
“We saw her several times a month. When I was a child in Julian, we drove down to Mission Hills to see her. When we moved to Ocean Beach, it was probably about the same amount, but the drive was less memorable,” Costello, now 72, recalled.
Costello said she would describe her grandmother as “intelligent, articulate, spine of steel, no-nonsense, had tons of friends both in the industry and socially.”
“She loved and understood animals and they loved her, especially the primates. When I was a kid, she would take me around the zoo. At the old chain link monkey cages, they would get excited at her approach. She would get close to the cage and talk to them in baby talk. They would get close to her and then they would start showing off and doing all their tricks. Visitors would be looking from the monkeys to her in amazement,” Costello said.
When asked what made her grandmother so independent and strong, Costello said it was perhaps being the next oldest in a family of eight children with a strong mother.
“… And I think San Diego was not as closed-minded about women’s roles as more civilized areas. She was born on a farm and when my grandmother was a child on Point Loma, most of it was open land with only a dirt road connecting it to the rest of San Diego [the historic Jennings House on Rosecrans and Talbot was owned by her uncle and her family may have lived in it at some point].
“She must have been a great multitasker because she never knew what the day would bring,” Costello said.
Benchley died on Dec. 17, 1973, after about five-six years of dementia but did leave a wonderful legacy, Costello added.
“Her legacy at the zoo would be that the animals are more important and valuable than the visitors. She worked to get rid of the circus atmosphere and attitude of early zoos, to treat the animals with dignity and as individuals, except for the sea lion shows, which she instigated in 1928.
“The zoo was one of the first to be successful in breeding many types of animals. In the early 1950s, she tried to get some pairs of the California condors, which were already in trouble. They had successfully bred Peruvian condors. Opposition from certain groups prevented the zoo from rebuilding the species.
“Under her watch, the zoo became the biggest and one of the best in the world and was world-famous,” she said.
Costello added her grandmother was well known in San Diego and remains so.
“Even in the ’60s, people would ask me if I was related to her when they heard the name ‘Benchley.’ She was the original Joan Embry. She would talk to any group that asked her and often took Bong the cheetah or another animal with her by herself,” Costello recalled.
In addition to her zoo role, her grandmother wrote three adult books about the zoo and one children’s book: “My Life in a Man-Made Jungle,” “My Friends the Apes,” “My Animal Babies,” and “Shirley Visits the Zoo.”
— Jill Diamond is a local freelance writer with a penchant for history.