San Diego Zoo Celebrates 100th Birthday Amid Global Debate Over Animal Captivity

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Zoo visitors play with giant Galapagos tortoises that are estimated between 120 to 140 years old inside their enclosure at the San Diego Zoo, California on January 13, 2015. (Credit: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

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A century ago, a San Diego physician named Harry Wegeforth held a meeting with his brother and three other men. The topic: starting a zoo.

There were already some animals — buffalo, bears, monkeys, lions, wolves — left over from the 1915 to 1916 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego’s Balboa Park, but not much else. Nobody knew where they would get more animals, where they would put them, or how they would pay for it all. The men went ahead anyway, forming the San Diego Zoological Society.

“The whole zoo was a gamble from the start,” Wegeforth later wrote, “but fortune usually favored us.”

By many measures, it favors them still. What was derided in the early days as “Wegeforth’s Folly” has become one of the most famous and respected zoos in the world — a major tourist attraction, a leader in efforts to conserve endangered plants and animals, and a thriving nonprofit that last year took in almost $30 million more than it spent.

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