The Beginnings of Waikiki's Wildlife Treasure: A Conversation with Paul Breese, the Founding Dir

In 1947, Paul Breese was named the first director of the Honolulu Zoo and was tasked with turning a small bird park into a world-class zoological park. With the help of Belle Benchley of the San Diego Zoo, he built the zoo from the ground up and put together an impressive collection of exotic animals. The zoo soon had significant breeding success with a number of species including Galapagos tortoises (the first successful births in America), cassowaries (the first successful birth and rearing in captivity), Asian hornbills and giraffes. Most noteworthy, Breese became Chairman of the Nene Advisory Committee and the Honolulu Zoo successfully saved the Hawaiian geese from extinction through the Nene Restoration Project. Here is his story.

@ Paul Breese

In 1940, Paul Breese went down to San Diego as a freshman at San Diego State University. “It was just a new campus then,” he remembered. “One of my classmates was Chuck Shaw. He was two years older than me and already a protege of [Laurence] Klauber, the rattlesnake authority. Klauber was a businessman, an authority on reptiles and an outstanding, civil do-gooder. His two-volume book, published by Berkeley, was and is one of the finest references on rattlesnakes. Big giant in the world of serpentology. He had in his basement in a classy neighborhood overlooking Balboa Park over 8,000 preserved rattlesnakes. That’s a hell of a lot of preserved rattlesnakes.” Shaw successfully got Breese on Klauber’s payroll.

@ San Diego Zoo Global

Klauber was a “key person” on the board of the San Diego Zoological Society. “He had been a member of the society with Dr. Harry Wegeforth (founder of the San Diego Zoo) for many years,” Breese mentioned. As America prepared for World War II, a number of employees left the zoo for the higher paying wartime jobs. “The Catalina (the city’s primary antisubmarine airplane spotter) paid about three times what the zoo did,” Breese recalled. “Zoo employees would go down and work for the wartime high salaries.” Shaw, who by this time worked at the zoo, referred Breese to come on board. “I got the job in the reptile house as a keeper trainee,” he recalled. “I got five bucks a day and keeper trainees were never permitted to deal with venomous snakes even though I had a bunch of rattlesnakes in my dormitory.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

@ San Diego Zoo Global

At the time, the San Diego Zoo had already begun to have a strong reputation but had not reached the size or scope it would in later decades. The zoo had opened Reptile Mesa, a Spanish-style complex home to a wide variety of reptiles, a few years prior. “For a few months, I worked as a reptile keeper,” Breese stated. “My boss was Chuck Perkins. The reptile house had been built with WPA money and was relatively new then. They had a huge herd of Galapagos tortoises- over thirty of them- that had been brought by my Portuguese tuna boats. That big bunch of adult tortoises produced a lot of crap and cleaning up after them was really a heavy-duty job. For some reason, they permitted me to clean two big tanks for alligators.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

Soon, Breese would gain other responsibilities after being noticed by Belle Benchley, the zoo’s longtime director. “Mrs. Benchley could see I was a brand-new college student that was enthusiastic and liked to talk” he stated. “I was hired as a driver guy.” Breese ended up driving the zoo’s double-decker bus throughout the zoo, a signature attraction still intact today. “They had two sightseeing buses modified from trucks with benches like church cubes,” he added. “I would go to the garage and get it in the morning. It cost a quarter a piece for the rides. Nowadays you have to have a bus driver’s license but the guy I replaced just barely taught me the ground rules and I only got a driver’s license the year before. Even though I was an inexperienced drive, I did it fulltime.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

“I would drive the bus in the morning and park inside the zoo entrance to catch people as they came in,” Breese continued. “I would take their quarters in a little box- no tickets at all. I had no boss on the spot. At the end of the day, I would take my little box of money up to Mrs. Benchley, the big boss of the zoo. she would check it out herself. I remember one day it was the last bus ride of the day and I was talking to one of the attractive female riders. We unfortunately chatted for 15-20 minutes and, when I turned in my money, Mrs. Benchley cued me up as I was holding her up from a speaking engagement. She impressed me with the importance of punctuality and keeping up with your responsibility. She was really heavy duty on responsibility and making sure you did what you were supposed to do on time.”

@ San Diego Zoo Global

When World War II started, Breese joined the Navy. After graduating from Navy School in Flagstaff, Arizona, he was assigned to work in Hawaii. There he was reunited with Chuck Shaw. “During Chuck’s whole wartime experience, he was only assigned to Pearl Harbor,” he noted. When the war ended, Breese decided to stay in Hawaii. “I liked what I saw of Honolulu and decided to live there rather than go back to San Diego,” he remembered. Honolulu had a collection of animals in Kapi’olani Park almost exclusively made up of birds. “They had the remnants of a good little zoo but no mammals besides goats, wallabies and a few monkeys,” he explained. Breese would take it upon himself to rebuild the zoo and was named its first director in 1947.

@ Paul Breese

@ Honolulu Zoo

One year after World War II, Breese got married in California and paid a visit to the San Diego Zoo. “Mrs. Benchley asked me to come back but I said I wanted to help rebuild the zoo in Honolulu,” he recounted. “Mrs. Benchley really stuck her neck out. She arranged for her architect and zoo designer Ralph Verden to take a leave of absence and come out to the zoo for two whole months. The two of us spent time figuring out what the zoo was going to have.” Since the zoo was in a tropical climate and had several birds left over from its days as a bird park, the two decided to continue to focus on those strengths. “Landscaping and tropical planting was a major component of our whole design as you’ve got to take advantage of that opportunity,” Breese explained. “We’d have a basic zoo with monkeys, apes, tigers, lions, tigers, bears [and the rest].”

@ Honolulu Zoo

When the Honolulu Zoo began its masterplan, it quadrupled in size to 42 acres. “We took an area that had been taken over by the army,” Breese stated. Among the first animals donated to the new zoo were an Asian elephant, camel and chimpanzees. “The trick was getting the city to accept those gift animals, which they did,” Breese recalled. “They were living at a dairy farm outside of town. The question was how to house them and take care of them.” Verden and Breese designed homes for the new animals using the latest zoo design techniques.

@ Honolulu Zoo

@ Honolulu Zoo

Another early addition were two giraffes, an investment that would later pay off greatly. “The story on the giraffes was really important,” Breese explained. “Mrs. Benchley said giraffes were going to be in short supply. If you were a private guy, they wouldn’t give you a permit. You had to be formally recognized as a zoo. Benchley told me to get giraffes so we could build a herd. She sent us her surplus male giraffe and we got a female from the National Zoo. She was the only pure Nubian giraffe in the nation.” The Honolulu Zoo would become renowned for its breeding success with giraffes after getting a young pair of reticulated giraffes in 1956. “We really lucked out in the giraffe department,” Breese reflected. “We had a huge number of babies and almost no deaths. The advice of doing the giraffes lived forever because the people that followed me used our breeding her to trade for all kinds of stuff.”

@ Paul Breese

@ Honolulu Zoo

One of the challenges of the Honolulu Zoo during its infancy was the residency clause. “Our city had a provision that you couldn’t work for the city unless you were a resident of Hawaii,” Breese explained. “There were ways to beat it. We could bring in a zoo director from outside but keeper positions were only open to locals. Of course, there were almost no keepers so the technique I used was I learned everything I could about birds from KC Lint (Curator of Birds at the San Diego Zoo), who came back and forth. I would use much of my limited salary to go to San Diego periodically. I made regular trips from 1949 to 1958 and would learn from KC and Chuck Shaw. I would also go and gather together animals from Louie Goppell, a marvelous guy who’d collect the surplus animals I needed, and the San Diego Zoo.”

@ Honolulu Zoo

Still, Breese managed to grow the staff both in size and professionalism. “We’d grow very slowly but progressively got new people and trained them,” he stated. “We had three key foremen I trained. I would take them over one at a time to the mainland to get animals. We would go to the San Diego Zoo and they would observe what was happening there. they were sharp guys and learned fast. The new employees were always men in my time, most of them Japanese. Many of them had been carpenters but building went boom and bust and during the bust they weren’t employed and they were highly skilled.”

@ Honolulu Zoo

@ Honolulu Zoo

The Honolulu Zoo began to have breeding success with a number of rare animals. In 1951, it became the first zoo to breed and rear cassowaries, flightless birds that dwell in the forests of Papua New Guinea. It would also have success breeding a number of Asian hornbills. “KC and I discussed at great length what to do,” Breese said. In 1954, the Honolulu Zoo became the first American zoo to breed Galapagos tortoises. “We’d see this one female laying eggs and we’d build a little fence around where the nest site was,” Breese remarked. “That’s the way we would know. The fence would keep the babies in when they were hatched and prevent the parents from stomping on the nest.”

@ Honolulu Zoo

@ Honolulu Zoo

Honolulu’s isolated location made the possibility of acquired animals escaping and becoming an invasive species a concern. “I was highly aware of the problem of introducing undesirable creatures like the mongoose,” Breese recalled. “I wouldn’t request a permit from the Department of Agriculture for anything I thought would likely become established and be an invasive, negative species. For example, I wouldn’t bring any opossums. There was another category of species where I’d request only males so if they got out, they couldn’t breed. I was on the agriculture committee so I would work with my friends who ran the Department of Agriculture to determine what came in.”

@ Honolulu Zoo

Over the course of Breese’s tenure, the Honolulu Zoo acquired a number of new animals including hippos, eland, zebras and bison. “I put the hippos behind the same stuff you’d use for eland and deer- eight foot fences,” Breese noted. “I got a breeding pair of hippos and they had kids fairly soon. The female came from the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn. I got a ten-foot alligator on that same trip that died just recently. It was a longevity record.” For the construction of the hippo building and many other exhibits, Breese brought in Merv Larson, a renowned exhibit designer and founder of the Larson Company, as a consultant.

@ Honolulu Zoo

@ Honolulu Zoo

In 1960, the Honolulu Zoo welcomed its first gorilla. “It was delivered to us at the AZA conference in Long Beach,” Breese remembered. “After the conference, we borrowed an old fashion but big, heavy-duty car and Bill Conway (later famous director of the Bronx Zoo) and our family of four kids drove in the rental car to San Diego. The gorilla sat on Bill’s lap.” The Honolulu Zoo learned from San Diego Zoo staff the proper husbandry for gorillas. “Dr. Lang’s wife talked to my then wife about raising gorillas in the home,” Breese said.

@ Honolulu Zoo

Perhaps Breese’s biggest achievement was the Nene Restoration Project, which began in 1949. Less than 30 of these Hawaiian geese remained because of hunting and predation from invasive species such as the mongoose. The Honolulu Zoo collaborated with the government of Hawaii to save them and Breese became Chairman of the Nene Advisory Committee. “We had a close rapport,” Breese recounted. “It basically came out of a friendship between me and Vernon. I had my employees and he had his but it person to person diplomacy.” The last thirty Nene were captured and brought to the Honolulu Zoo to breed. Eventually several of these birds would be reintroduced into the wild.

@ Honolulu Zoo

“A team came with Walter Cronkite to do a TV thing on nature on the islands,” Breese remembered. “They asked how we were so far ahead. When we started with the Nene, there were 13 Nene in captivity. Thirteen total. We just knew we couldn’t wait for a money situation. We got a minimum amount of money the first couple of years but it grew from there. It was a real passion and our idea to make it the state bird. We lucked out again as we had no state bird.” The Nene became the official bird of the territory and later state of Hawaii.

@ Honolulu Zoo

@ Honolulu Zoo

Today, the Nene population stands at around 2,500 birds. “The restoration project was an enormous success,” Breese elaborated. “On this island and Maui, the most important management technique is to trap mongoose and stray feral cats in the forest the wild birds are nesting. The situation is totally different on Kauai. There weren’t any wild flocks on Kauai when we started but extra birds became available and one rancher established a colony without mongoose. No mongoose made a huge difference. The Nene were nesting in large numbers near the major airport as the habitat near it was excellent Nene habitat and had good cover. The Nene were really thriving but the probably of bird strike was so high with the Nene. As a consequence, there’s a big program to reverse the situation by catching the Nene from Kauai and releasing them on this island and Maui.”

@ Honolulu Zoo

Breese succeeded in publicizing the zoo without a society. “We never had a society on purpose,” he remarked. “I quickly learned I had so many hours in a day and the time I spent with newspapers and TV was very wise hours. I became close friends with many of the newspaper people. I figured I should spend at least a third of my hours in some form of public relations, which was a very good decision. I was very lucky to be trained by professional journalists on how to do it.”

@ Honolulu Zoo

@ Honolulu Zoo

In 1965, Paul Breese retired from the Honolulu Zoo. “It was all my choice,” he reflected. “First of all, I didn’t have a lot of energy. My kids were all growing up and I was getting burned out. I never had formal days off, had no second in common and worked some part of every day at the zoo. I figured it was time [to leave] as the zoo had gotten to its point.” Breese was ahead of his time in seeing the value of zoos as conservation organizations that protect endangered species. For instance, the zoo’s Nene Restoration Project proceeded Species Survival Plans by over thirty years. One has to wonder what Breese would have accomplished if he had stayed in zoos for future decades.

@ Honolulu Zoo

@ Honolulu Zoo

To this date, Breese is involved in the Honolulu Zoo and provides his insight and wisdom to the team. “I’ve worked very hard to maintain a good relationship with the folks at the Honolulu Zoo,” he articulated. “I have kept in mind my role as elder statesman and been perpetually mindful of not being a nuisance. I’m not to tell anybody what to do or how to do it but to be available on the other end of the phone.”

@ Honolulu Zoo

@ Honolulu Zoo

Much has changed at the Honolulu Zoo in the over half a century since Breese left but its first director sees it excelling in years to come. “The Honolulu Zoo has a wonderful future,” he concluded. “First of all, Linda Santos was just appointed director. She started as a keeper in her second job out of high school and she has been here for thirty plus years. She’s on the ball, sharp, part Hawaiian and good with people and animals. She first perfectly and is very much a natural leader. Everything here is looking up. The present mayor is all-pro zoo and is very much for Linda and the zoo.”

@ Paul Breese

Highly Recommended Additional Reading: The Honolulu Zoo: Waikiki's Wildlife Treasure, 1915-2015 by Paul Breese and Jean DeMercer Breese http://www.honoluluzoobooks.com/about-the-book

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