Belle Jennings Benchley
Belle Jennings Benchley was born in Pratt, Kan., on Aug. 28, 1882. At the age of four, she and her family moved to Loma, Calif., where her father was sheriff of San Diego County.
Belle received a teaching certificate from San Diego State Normal School and married William Benchley in 1905. They had one son and when they divorced in 1922 she was left as his sole support. After completing a bookkeeping course in 1925, she took a position at the San Diego Zoo.
The Zoo had between 600 and 800 animals housed on 150 acres with 10 employees when Belle first started. At her retirement nearly 26 years later, it had grown to 3,000 animals on 200 acres with 200 employees. During her first week at the zoo she began suggesting to the cirector, Dr. Harry Wegeforth, ways for improvement at the zoo. He would always reply, "Well, do something about it." She had wolves moved to larger cages, wrote promotional articles for the newspaper, and on her days off collected food donations from local grocers. In 1827 she was made executive secretary and director of the zoo.
In her first few weeks as new director, she actually did the various jobs of her employees in order to better understand the daily operations of the zoo. She cleaned elephant cages, nursed a sick emu and patrolled the grounds as night watchman. She believed the zoo was for the animals, not people. She would tolerate no abuse or neglect, warning her employees to always use "a soft word instead of a club, a gentle twinkle of the eye instead of a whip."
Belle was the first to use moats as natural barriers for bears and big cats. She made certain every cage had a private place, out of public view, as a retreat. In 1931 she obtained two gorillas, out of only five then in the country. In 1938 she opened the largest bird cage in the world for birds of prey, complete with a real hill with cliffs and trees. She was very proud of the zoo hospital, the first in the United States, and of the zoo's highly successful captive breeding program.
Midge Kirk writes "Herstory," relating the stories of women who have been important in the development of the nation.