Vision, Strong Marketing Keys to Zoo's Success : Animal Park's Founder Pursued a Wild Dream

Times Staff Writer

The old man kept sounding off like a cynical tourist as he walked slowly around the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

"See that crack in the pavement? They oughta fix it.

"The food should be better, and they should serve it quicker.

"The line (waiting for the monorail ride) is too long. They should run more trains to keep the wait down."

Even during the 50-minute monorail ride around the park, as the tour guide pointed out beautiful animals that are extinct in the wild, the man complained.

"Look at the dead bamboo. It looks bad. They ought to rip it up.

"The windshield's dirty. Don't they know how easy it is to clean it in the morning? Heck, they've got the tools."

But the old man knew his stuff about animals, too. When someone asked the tour guide a question that she couldn't answer, she turned to him for the answer. And when the two-car train pulled into its unloading dock and the guide wished everyone a nice visit, the man turned decidedly upbeat.

He applauded and complimented the guide for her work. And, as he walked away, he chirped, "This is still one hell of a joint, isn't it?"

Meet Dr. Charles Schroeder. Call him Doc. Call him Charlie. Call him the man who built the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

"If ever there was a towering giant in the zoo world, it is Charlie Schroeder," says Dr. Warren Thomas, executive director of the Los Angeles Zoo.

Back in the late 1950s, when zoo directors around the country were looking for ways to improve their existing facilities, Schroeder had this wild idea of developing a huge animal farm where rare and endangered animals could stretch out and run and make babies.

His own board of directors scoffed at the notion for financial reasons, but Schroeder persisted. Some directors threatened to fire him if he didn't drop it, but he didn't and he eventually won out.

The San Diego Wild Animal Park opened in 1972, encompassing 1,800 acres (one-third is developed) in the San Pasqual Valley--a San Diego agricultural preserve--just east of Escondido. It is home to 2,200 animals representing 225 species, 36 of which are endangered or extinct in the wild.

The park's roster of births includes the likes of 48 South African cheetahs, 40 Przewalski's wild horses, 132 Arabian oryx, 80 Grevy's zebra, six lowland gorillas, six Indian rhinoceroses, more gazelles than you can shake a stick at and 59 southern white rhinos, perhaps the park's proudest achievement because the animal is no longer on the endangered list.

"I'm amazed by how this place turned out," Schroeder, 84, says of his park.

No other park in the United States is like the San Diego Wild Animal Park because of its size, the success of its breeding program and because it is open to the public. The closest thing to it is an animal reserve in Kenya--or an African safari. The New York Zoological Society and the National Zoo each operate breeding reserves but they are closed to the public.

Schroeder, a native of New York City, was hired as the San Diego Zoo's veterinarian in 1932, with duties which at the time included service as research director, animal feed purchaser and zoo photographer, and selling postcards at the front gate. (Today, he notes, there are 47 employees in the research department, four persons in the photography department and five full-time veterinarians.)

In 1937, Schroeder was hired away by the Bronx Zoo in New York City, but he returned two years later as director of the San Diego Zoo hospital. He left again in 1941 to become a production manager of a pharmaceutical laboratory, but returned again in 1953, this time as the executive director of the San Diego Zoological Society.

"He was a loved--and feared--autocrat," recalls Sheldon Campbell, president of the San Diego Zoological Society. "He wanted things at the zoo run his way. He was feared as he'd walk around the zoo with his little black book, writing down every little problem he saw. Each section of the zoo had its early warning system; when someone saw him coming, they'd put the word out. In the Children's Zoo, a chimpanzee howled and jumped up and down as a warning to the keepers."

Schroeder used to come to work on Sundays to review the notations in his black book and write memos to the staff in triplicate--one for the target of his criticism, one for himself and one for a tickler file to remind him to follow up. The staff anticipated his "Monday morning blizzard," and those who chose to ignore the memos soon learned of Schroeder's reminder file.

In 1959 Schroeder began his search for a place to develop a "country zoo" where animals could be relocated from the somewhat crowded San Diego Zoo, a place where they would be encouraged to breed.

The city-owned San Pasqual Valley site was chosen in 1962. Schroeder originally envisioned few public amenities, just a restroom, a snack bar and a place where people could look over the fence and spy on the animals. The project would cost about $1 million, he figured.

The concept grew, as did the dreams, and in 1969 ground was broken for what now represents a $20 million investment.

More than a million visitors annually drive out a winding, two-lane highway to visit the park, its 17-acre Africa-theme village and its five-mile Wgasa Bush Line monorail.

Schroeder, then 70 years old, personally walked and staked the monorail route. "When we'd come up to a steep hill, us younger guys would walk around the base of it but Charlie would walk right over the top," said Charles Faust, the Wild Animal Park's architect.

Doug Myers, the current executive director of the San Diego Zoological Society, remembers when he was hired as general manager of the Wild Animal Park in 1982 and Schroeder was taking him on a tour of the grounds.

"We came to a gate in the fence and he asked me if I had a key to open the lock. I said no. So he asked me if I could get over the fence. Before I could answer him, he had already scaled over it." The fence was six feet high and Schroeder was 82 years old at the time.

Schroeder, who now lives in a rambling ranch house not far from the park, is just as feisty and endearing today as he was during the days he carried his black book. As he openly criticizes faults he sees at the Wild Animal Park, public relations people cringe. But they can't keep the guy down.

What's his favorite exhibit?

"The Palomar Observatory," he says. "Looking into space is the most overwhelming experience of all."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World