Dr. Charles Schroeder, the father of the San Diego Wild Animal Park and renowned throughout the international zoo community, died Thursday from complications associated with cancer of the liver. He was 89.
Schroeder, a longtime Escondido resident who lived in a rambling ranch house not far from the park, had held several positions with the San Diego Zoological Society since he became the zoo veterinarian in 1932. He was remembered Thursday as a tireless professional who combined hard work with a willingness to speak his mind--even when it wasn’t popular.
“Dr. Schroeder is a true legend in San Diego and in the zoo community worldwide,” said Douglas Myers, executive director of the San Diego Zoological Society, which encompasses the Wild Animal Park and the zoo. “His cheerfulness and boundless energy inspired many and accomplished great things. . . . He was a wonderful person to know, dearly loved here, and will be dearly missed.”
During the late 1950s, when directors around the country were looking for ways to improve, their zoos, Schroeder had a wild idea: developing a huge animal farm--a “country zoo"--where rare and endangered animals could have space to stretch their legs and, ideally, to breed.
His own board of directors scoffed at the notion, saying it would cost too much. Some directors threatened to fire him if he didn’t shelve the project. But Schroeder persisted, and, in 1972, the 1,800-acre park in the San Pasqual Valley opened its doors.
The San Diego Zoo also benefitted from Schroeder’s talents--especially his business sense. It was Schroeder who chose Joan Embery to be the zoo’s ambassador, a public relations move that won the zoo much attention when she appeared regularly on national television. He also led the movement to replace the bars surrounding the zoo’s exhibits with moats.
“The San Diego Zoo as we know it and the San Diego Wild Animal Park are Dr. Schroeder’s legacy,” Myers said Thursday.
Schroeder was a native of New York City. He received his degree in veterinary medicine from Washington State University in 1929. In 1932, he was hired as the San Diego Zoo’s veterinarian. His duties at that time included service as research director, animal feed purchaser and zoo photographer. He also sold postcards at the front gate.
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.
Soon, his attention to detail became well-known throughout the zoo. Schroeder noted his suggestions and criticisms in a little black book as he walked around the park. Then, on Sundays, he would come to work to review his notations and type them up in triplicate--one for the target of his criticism, one for himself and one for a file he used to remind himself to follow up.
The staff learned to expect his “Monday morning blizzard,” and soon the sight of Schroeder approaching caused even some animals to sit up and take notice.
“Each section of the zoo had its early warning system,” said Sheldon Campbell in a 1985 interview, when he was president of the San Diego Zoological Society. “When someone saw him coming, they would put the word out. In the Children’s Zoo, a chimpanzee howled and jumped up and down as a warning to the keepers.”
In 1959, Schroeder first conceived the Wild Animal Park idea, and it was his politicking that made the dream become a reality. He would retire from the directorship of the zoo in 1972, but his influence and energy never ebbed.
Myers, the Zoological Society’s executive director, remembered when he was hired as general manager of the Wild Animal Park in 1982, and Schroeder took 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,” Myers said in a 1985 interview. “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 6-feet high, and Schroeder was 82 years old at the time.
Schroeder also had been president of the San Diego Natural History Society, the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, or AAZPA, and the International Unions of Directors of Zoological Gardens.
He was a member of the honorary societies Phi Kappa Phi, Sigma Xi and Phi Zeta. In 1982, he became the first to receive AAZPA’s Marlin Perkins Award for distinguished service in his field.
Schroeder is survived by his wife, Maxine, and two children, Charles of Escondido and Mary of San Francisco.