Animals Always: A Conversation with Charlie Hoessle, Retired Director of the Saint Louis Zoo

Charles “Charlie” Hoessle is often regarded as one of the most influential zoo figures of all time. During his four decades at the Saint Louis Zoo including twenty years as director, he transformed a good zoo with rich history into a modern one that’s regarded as one of the very best in the world. To this day, a statue commemorates Hoessle in front of the Saint Louis Zoo’s Herpetarium. Here is his story.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Hoessle’s love for animals and nature came at a young age. “I was a boy naturalist,” he noted. “As a kid I was interested in snakes, which was unusual as most people are scared of them. I’d catch snakes and tried to get the kids around me to appreciate them. snakes were my real hobby.” Hoessle’s love for snakes continued during his time in the army. “At five o’clock the officers would go home and I’d go into the canyon and catch snakes,” he recalled. “They had me give lectures on venomous snakes and snake bite prevention and treatment. After the army I worked at a pet shop and then got my own pet shop. It was mainly fish and birds but I had the reptiles in the back. I was written in Pets Magazine as being an unusual pet shop owner. So many people wanted to see my snakes I moved them to the front. I would give talks about the snakes to Boy Scouts and other groups and one time Marlin Perkin’s wife was in the audience. She told him that I gave an interesting talk and I should work at the zoo. Marlin gave me a call the next day and offered me a position as reptile keeper. That’s how I came to the zoo.”

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Charlie Hoessle started at the zoo during the tenure of legendary zoo director Marlin Perkins, famous for being the host of the TV show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. While he was primarily a reptile keeper, he soon ended up doing a wide variety of responsibilities at the zoo. “Moody Lentz was the general curator at the time but he was also the reptile curator,” Hoessle explained. “He was in charge of all the animals so every time an animal had to be moved, he would ask for volunteers from the reptile department and I would go help. We also raised baby gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and other animals. The Children’s Zoo opened in 1967 so that year we had all sorts of animals we were taking care of.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Hoessle also helped start the zoo’s education program. “I had my pet constrictor and alligator so every time a school trip came I’d show them my boa and alligator for them to touch," he remarked. "They’d see the difference between a reptile and an amphibian. Marlin {Perkins} was interested in an education program so he helped me develop it. He sent me to the first AZA meeting with zoos that had an education program. Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Diego were the only zoos that had an education program so I talked to the education directors of those institutions. I worked with the science supervisor of the broad of education to ask how we could enhance the zoo to bring students here. We created brochures for different ages that were given to all the schools in Saint Louis. I worked with Saint Louis County school districts so teachers could call the zoo to make appointments for school groups. Now the education department has a whole big staff.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Hoessle would continued to move up the podium at the Saint Louis Zoo. After the assistant director of the zoo got sick, he was asked to take over the commissary. “I bought the hay, fish and meat for the sea lions, penguins and other animals,” Hoessle remembered. “The lion keeper was a butcher so the meat had been distributed out of the Lion House and the produce had been distributed out of the Elephant House. I took over the commissary and made it one building on the west side of the zoo.” In 1968, Charlie Hoessle was promoted to General Curator making him in charge of all the zoo’s animals. “We went through a bunch of directors so I pretty well got to run the zoo as General Curator,” he added.

@ Grayson Ponti

Hoessle’s time as General Curator lined up with a time when zoos were starting to see themselves as having a different purpose. “I began to build up the collection with endangered species,” he reflected. “After the Korean War, the world realized some species were becoming endangered. When this was recognized, although the zoo world was aware of it before the government, the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) started urging zoos and zoo directors to concrete on breeding endangered species since they were threatened in the wild. At the time, the Saint Louis Zoo was famous for its animal shows- the chimpanzee show, the elephant show, the lion show. That was mostly entertainment so we tried to bring science into the zoo. Back in the early days, indigenous people would kill chimpanzees for meat and adopt the babies as pets who were often sold to animal dealers, then to zoos.”

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“ As chimpanzees were recognized as endangered, we didn’t want to put pressure on them and phased out the show,” he continued. “We then had a family of chimpanzees breeding offspring and behaving naturally. Then we phased out the lion show and built Big Cat Country. We phased out the elephant show and sent a couple of them to Springfield, Missouri, where they had a good bull. One of them came back pregnant and gave birth to a baby elephant named Raja. We then built a forest area for rhinos, hippos and a breeding family of elephants. Instead of the animals dressed up and performing, people can appreciate them for their dignity, not as clowns. My zoo team was all supportive and enthusiastic about changing the zoo from an entertainment place to a recreation area of science. we took animals from behind the bars to natural environments where they were in family groups. The zoo now is very much an education institution.”

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Charlie Hoessle noted Marlin Perkins very much stood at the crossroads of respecting the traditional entertainment value of the Saint Louis Zoo and seeing the potential of what it could become. “When Marlin was zoo director, the shows were so fixed as part of the popularity of the zoo,” he elaborated. “He continued to let the shows continue but wanted to stress science and built up some of the large herds at the zoo. Marlin was interested in animals of all kinds and wanted everyone else to appreciate and understand them. When he was at Lincoln Park Zoo, TV was just in its infancy and the first program, Zoo Parade, was only for people in Chicago. When it finally went national, I didn’t even have a TV set so I walked down to watch it in the window of a radio show. The name changed from Zoo Parade to Wild Kingdom and he began going around the world to film it. I got to help Marlin behind the scenes on some of the shows. I’d be hiding under the desk and handing him animals.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

In 1976, Big Cat Country represented a shift in how the Saint Louis Zoo housed its animals. For the first time, the zoo’s lions, tigers and jaguars could roam free on grass. “We had an old lion house that was all concrete cubicles,” Hoessle recalled. “The cats were all behind bars. We didn’t have a lot of space but we wanted to get the cats out into landscaped enclosures. There was enough space to have three big yards but we had to do the holding facilities underground. A lot of European zoos do that. When you see Big Cat Country, underground are the holding facilities. We were able to use that space and put the animals outside.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

“I actually laid out on a piece of paper how we could do it,” Hoessle continued. “An architect took my scribbles and made a cardboard model of Big Cat Country. We did it so the tiger exhibit is eye level but the lions and jaguars had to be down in order not to get out. We had it moated so we could bring some of the soil out. The moats had to be 26 feet wide and deep or the cats could get over and jump out.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Big Cat Country was recognized by winning the Exhibit Award from the AZA. “We were thrilled to get an award,” Hoessle added. He noted the only major area of the Saint Louis Zoo that has remained largely untouched since that time is the Red Rocks Antelope Yards. “The Red Rocks is patterned after Elephant Rock State Park in Missouri, which is all red granite,” Hoessle said. “The antelope house is a brick building very much like a dairy barn but it looks like a red rock outcropping. That’s about the only thing that hasn’t changed. The only thing we did is the antelope yards eroded so we had to walk a mule through, lower a plow and clean out the moats again. We were able later to cut a wall in one of the yards so we could clean them out with a tractor.”

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After Big Cat Country, the Saint Louis Zoo remodeled its three Historic Buildings- the Primate House, Herpetarium and Bird House. These renovations maintained the Spanish style architecture of these beautiful buildings but modernized the spaces inhabited by the animals. “In the Primate House, the animals were all behind bars so we went to glass and made larger spaces," Hoessle said. "Now we could have family groups rather than one or two of each one. With the Reptile House, we made it more natural. All the plants in there are live plants. We tried to make it look like a bit of nature the reptiles were living in. Most of the reptile keepers were pretty good horticulturalists too.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

@ Saint Louis Zoo

“The biggest challenge was those historic buildings have an architecture quality to them- Mediterranean architecture,” he explained. “We had to give the animals a better life but not change the architectural character of the buildings. There were times it was difficult to change but we were able to do it. Inside the Reptile House, we had these carved alligators and snakes bronze chandeliers held by snakes- quite a work of art. Inside the Bird House there were ostriches, flamingos and other birds on the wall in full color. Quite a bit of artwork inside and outside of these buildings had to be kept.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Hoessle acknowledged he learned different things from each of the directors he worked with and each had different contributions to the zoo. “When Dick Schultz was director, we became part of the Zoo Museum District,” he remarked. “They created that district so the county would pay a tax to support the zoo, art museum and science museum. Dick had become the director because the zoo commission wanted to be sure we could be financially responsible with tax dollars. I learned from him how to budget, control costs and distribute money throughout the departments. Before him, Bob Briggs was director and he was a PR former newspaper reporter. He worked on the Zoo Museum District Campaign. I learned a lot about PR from him. I learned the most from Marlin since he was an animal guy.” Hoessle reflected on how he lacked formal education and gained his expertise of zoos hands on. “There’s a lot of ways people become zoo directors but I started at the bottom and worked my way to the top,” he commented. In 1982, Charlie Hoessle finally became Director of the Saint Louis Zoo.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Even though he was in the director chair, he still remained the same in his interactions with the staff. “My zoo employees had gotten to know me real well so, when I became director, I was still Charlie,” Hoessle said. “All the volunteers, groundskeepers and mechanics called me that and I had an open door policy. I always took feedback from the staff. I had a lot from the help from the people around me and I have to compliment Dr. Bonner as he kept a lot of the staff and took the zoo beyond where I could have taken it. He kept all the curators I hired. He has a degree in anthropology and took the zoo from a conservation perspective far beyond where I could ever go. We have a great zoo in Saint Louis, no doubt about it.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

One thing that Charlie Hoessle focused on as director was promoting conservation through membership. During his time as zoo director, the number of members at the Saint Louis Zoo skyrocketed despite it being a free zoo. The zoo started bringing in renowned speakers to talk at member events. “We brought in Jane Goodall as a speaker and had to move it to City Hall,” Hossle remembered. “We had Stephanie Powers come as well. She had a program in East Africa.” His philosophies set the foundation for Jeffrey Bonner to build on and start the WildCare Institute years later.

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The first major exhibit project done during Hoessle’s tenure was Jungle of the Apes, a major improvement in the living space for the zoo’s gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees. Upon opening in 1986, it gave gorillas outdoor access for the first time in the zoo’s history. Since then, it has been transformed into Fragile Forest, which includes outdoor habitats for orangutans and chimpanzees. “The old Ape House had everything behind bars while Jungle of the Apes had the chimpanzees and orangutans behind glass and gave them big trees where they could climb up high,” Hoessle elaborated. “The ceiling was higher and they had more room so we could have family groups. We wanted to have families of gorillas and chimpanzees, not just a couple of chimps.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

@ Saint Louis Zoo

The outdoor gorilla habitat was one of the first naturalistic environments for great apes at any zoos. “For the gorillas, we selected plants that hopefully the gorillas would not eat,” Hoessle remarked. “We constantly fed them lettuce, celery and other treats so they wouldn’t tear up the exhibit and, like in nature, they were constantly foraging.” The habitat was also notable as it was the first all-bachelor group of gorillas in an American zoo. “The primate curator said every zoo has a family group of gorillas so there’s no place for the extra males to go, leading to a surplus of males,” Hoessle stated. “It was decided the Saint Louis Zoo would be where the deposited males went.” Since that time, more zoos have followed suit and begun having all male groups. The days of the chimp shows were officially over.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

In 1989, the Saint Louis Zoo opened the Living World, a state-of-the-art education facility. This project reflected the zoo’s growing emphasis on science education. It contains several classrooms, an auditorium that can seat over 400 people and displays teaching guests about the natural world. “At the time, that exhibit had a hall of diversity with mammals, birds, reptiles and fish,” Charlie Hoeslle recalled. “There was a manikin of Charles Darwin explaining the theory of evolution and we showed a primitive human. We also had a computer lab there in the days when teachers didn’t have computers. You could go to the computer lab and learn about animals all over the world. The computers were donated to teach teachers how to use computers to teach kids science.” Since opening, the Hall of Diversity and computer lab have been taken out. “Then everyone started to get computers and the Hall of Diversity outlived his time,” he said.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

During his time as director, Hoessle was an active participant in the AZA and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). “I was able to bring our zoo into the international conservation arena,” he commented. The zoo’s efforts became more successful as the zoo became even more popular. “The attendance of the zoo went from one million to three million, which I think must be because the zoo looked better in the eyes of local people and tourists,” Hoessle explained. “The zoo has a very positive image. People love the zoo and a lot of the people in Saint Louis view the zoo profession as heroes.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

He noted the zoo’s reputation and popularity was a crucible, in no small part because of its free admission. “The zoo was established by European immigrants in the early, early days who came from the working class,” Charlie Hoessle stated. “In Europe, a lot of zoos and museums were only accessible to the upper class so these guys wanted to bring culture to Saint Louis and decided they would have a zoo with free admission. I grew up as a child in a working class family of German immigrants and we went to the free zoo all the time so I was supportive of keeping it free. We had the Saint Louis Zoo TV show from 1968 to 1978 where I was the host and we’d have animals on every week. That helped give local publicity to the zoo. We got a lot of publicity when Big Cat Country opened, same with Living World and Jungle of the Apes. That all kind of evolved.” Quality backed up the zoo’s reputation. “We were ahead of our time in phasing out the animal shows and having keepers use rewards instead,” he added. “That’s why we still have the sea lion show today. Give them a piece of fish and they’ll do whatever you want. That’s positive reinforcement.”

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The grand finale of Hoessle’s career at the Saint Louis Zoo was a giant capital campaign that would redo much of the zoo. He spent the bulk of his time finding the support for this massive project. “I was out making friends and makings calls to the presidents of companies like Emerson and the Busch Brewery to explain to them what the zoo meant to the community and the world,” Hoessle said. “I would give a talk about the zoo’s history and what we do then make a request for a million dollars or half a million dollars to help the zoo. I liked to call fundraising friendraising.” In fact, he extended his retirement by three years to secure the money for the capital campaign. “We started with a $55 million campaign but found it it would cost more so they came to me and said they’d like me to stay three more years to raise more money,” Hoessle recalled. “I stayed three more years and then they said they could use me for three more years. I didn’t retire until I was 71.”

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Charlie Hoessle gave his staff immense credit for the success of the Saint Louis Zoo. “My biggest role at the zoo was fundraising as everyone who reported to me brought a skill to the zoo I didn’t have,” he reflected. “I only had to make the major decisions since they were the experts. What I did was hire people who were highly trained or trainable and give them my support. I sent every one of our curators to management school. They learned from AZA too. I would only be able to train them about the Saint Louis Zoo and my expertise but these programs let them learn more. The zoo staff grew as the world became more complicated and the zoo grew bigger. I thought everyone who worked for me could be a zoo director in the future. I never in my smallest dreams ever thought I would be one. I thought I would love to be an assistant to Moody Lentz since I admired him so much.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

“Everybody I hired loved animals,” Hoessle continued. “They also loved the public although the welfare of the animals came first. I’ve always been a humane advocate and served on the Animal Protection Board of Saint Louis for 25 years. In fact, early in my career, I got criticism from PETA so I invited them out to the zoo and explained our goals. We never had a problem after that. I’m sensitive to any criticism of animals in zoos as they’re given the best care. We have great veterinary care and are doing an awful lot to help animals in the wild. They’re in a critical status with habitat disappearing in the future. Zoos have their work cut out for them to educate the public about conservation. Zoos have a tremendous volume of visitors coming through which gives them the opportunity to educate them about international conservation issues.”

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One of the components of the massive capital campaign was an Insectarium, which would become one of the best of its kind when it opened in 2000. “The first insect zoo I ever saw was Cincinnati’s and I admired that,” Hoessle elaborated. “Invertebrates have long been neglected and I thought all elements of the animal kingdom needed to be introduced to the public. I got the concept of an insectarium and brought in someone to put that together. That’s very popular.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

The zoo also renovated its Children’s Zoo and added the Bird Garden. “The Children’s Zoo was improved by expanding the space and variety of animals people could be exposed to,” Charlie Hoessle said. “It exposes the whole animal kingdom to kids on a first experience view- they can touch them and see them as babies. The Bird Garden was an opportunity to bring some new birds into the collection. We had big waterfowl lakes and the Bird House with tropical birds but a lot of birds weren’t represented so we added them by having a walkthrough bird garden.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

The main project of the capital campaign was River’s Edge, a set of immersive habitats dedicated to animals who live adjacent to water. It is regarded as one of the best exhibits ever built at a zoo and the level of lushness and naturalism is astonishing. The motivation for building River’s Edge was to give Raja, the zoo’s baby elephant, “the opportunity to grow up.” “He’s become the herd bull and is now the father of a number of elephants,” Hoessle said. In addition to Asian elephants, the area features Nile hippopotamus, black rhinoceros, cheetahs, red river hogs, spotted hyenas, bat-eared foxes, mongoose, giant anteaters, capybaras and bush dogs. Since Hoessle’s retirement, Andean bears, sun bears and African wild dogs have been added to the region.

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Ever since being born in 1992, Raja has been deeply loved by the community of Saint Louis. “When Raja was born, we publicized him so much and said we needed to build a new home for him,” Charlie Hoessle stated. “Raja was the salesman, the icon- the one that made [River’s Edge] happen. We had Raja’s birthday party every year and people have been coming out ever since. They come every year to his birthday party where they give him food, watermelons and treats. “

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“The old elephant house was a typical zoo concrete building with a cage for rhinos, hippos and the show elephants,” he continued. “The elephants were used in the show behind it. The elephant show ended and we then wanted to breed our elephants. We sent them to Springfield to breed but only Pearl got pregnant. When we had Raja, we knew we needed a new facility. “ The are containing the old elephant house and aquatic house as well as some wooded area was overhauled for River’s Edge.

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The only part of River’s Edge that was pre-existing was the cheetah yard. “We improved the cheetah yard and added hyenas nearby,” Hoessle remarked. “We built the cheetah area back in the 70s when cheetahs became quite endangered. We learned from seeing their behaviors in the wild they needed an unfamiliar mate and a large space. We had a large yard for bison so we sent those out and made that a cheetah facility. We switched males and females back and forth and produced 33 cubs. We built River’s Edge around the cheetah yard.”

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Megan Turner @ Saint Louis Zoo

Charlie Hoessle’s personal favorite part of River’s Edge is Hippo Harbor, one of only about a dozen hippo habitats in America that contains underwater viewing. “I think the best exhibit there is the underwater viewing of hippos,” he noted. “That’s the best way to see hippos. I went to Mzima Springs in Africa in the 1970s where there’s an emerged room and you look at the hippos underwater. At the time [we were planning River’s Edge,] the only underwater hippo [exhibit at a zoo] was Toledo so we did the underwater hippo exhibit and stocked it with fish. The hippo exhibit is really one of my favorites.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

“With the hippos you look at them and can see them in the water or walking on the ground above,” Hoessle continued. “The water is heated so all winter those fish and hippos can stay in that pool. The fish are as great of an exhibit as the hippos. That’s a very active exhibit- there’s something going on. The hippos and fish moving about always looks like Mzima Springs to me. I can pretend like I’m in Africa.”

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A major focus when building River’s Edge was to showcase critically endangered animals such as the black rhinoceros. “We did the black rhino facility so we could breed them since they’re so endangered in the wild,” Hoessle stated. “The space available was much more adaptable for black rhino than white rhinos. The use of logs and materials we did made it the most naturalistic we could. Black rhinos are solitary so we have to keep the male and female separate.” Since the exhibit opened, the Saint Louis Zoo has had success breeding black rhinos.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Of course, the anchor of River’s Edge was the set of three habitats (now four) for a large herd of Asian elephants. “We decided a forest with a trail going through it was as natural of an environment as we could create for elephants,” Hoessle explained. “We wanted to have an outdoor yard for all the cows, another for the bulls and another yard for when a cow had a baby. We had ample outdoor spaces and big indoor spaces.” The new barn featured areas where the elephants could receive top notch veterinary care, training and pedicures. “Behind the scenes was designed by the keepers for the keepers and the best interest of the elephants,” Hoessle continued. “Each outside yard has a pool for the elephants to bathe and swim and there’s able room for them to wander around. There’s an above heater for them on the cool days.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

“We enriched their lives by feeding them at different times,” Hoessle noted. “We’d throw in food and there were concrete tree trunks where we could hide peanuts and treats around the walls. The elephants go around and explore to find food.” Since Hoessle’s time, Elephant Woods has given the zoo’s elephants a large off-exhibit space for them to roam and act naturally. Several Asian elephants have been born in River’s Edge and it’s one of the absolute highlights of the zoo.

@ Saint Louis Zoo

In 2002, Charlie Hoessle retired after completing the three phases of River’s Edge. “Quick frankly I was 71 years old and wanted to retire when I was young enough,” he recollected. “I love to travel and wanted to get an RV so I could go to national parks. I loved the zoo and zoo people but it was time for the next zoo person to take the reigns. They brought in Jeff Bonner, who they picked for his vision of the Saint Louis Zoo. He’s been very nice to me. His vision was expanding the conservation outreach programs and that’s certainly what the zoo has done. When Bonner came in I made myself available whenever the staff needed me but I stayed out of his way. I wanted it to be his show.”

@ Saint Louis Zoo

Charlie Hoessle retired as one of the all-time greats in the zoo field. His legacy lives on with the continued excellent achieved at the Saint Louis Zoo and modern zoos in general. “I think zoos will continue growing as they are now,” Charlie Hoessle concluded. “It’s like a home- you have to change things to make them better. Zoos will improve in their catering to endangered species and the public. It has to be enjoyable but also very naturalistic where the animals and people are as happy as can be. Zoos are going to get more and more involved with international conservation as the wild is going to get worse before it gets better. Part of my legacy is taking the zoo from behind bars to naturalistic, from the show business to science and hiring a staff devoted to all those things.”

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