Book traces career of San Diego Zoo director Chuck Bieler

Chuck Bieler holds a book that highlights his contributions to the San Diego Zoo.
Chuck Bieler, who served as director of the San Diego Zoo for a dozen years, holds a book released this year that highlights his contributions to the organization.
(Tammy Spratt / San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance )

Beiler, 87, began working for the zoo in 1969; is credited with shaping its masterplan, raising millions, supporting shift toward conservation research in ‘Heart of the Zoo’ book


Chuck Bieler spent five decades helping lead the San Diego Zoo. Not bad for a guy who walked in not knowing a lion from a tiger.

He was there in 1972 when the Balboa Park-based zoo opened the 1,800-acre Wild Animal Park near Escondido and three years later when the organization created what became one of the largest zoo-based research centers in the world.

In the years that followed, Bieler helped shape the masterplan replacing outdated concrete grottos with bioclimatic habitats — and cajoled the right patrons to help fund it.

Now 87, his story is outlined in a 2022 book titled “Heart of the Zoo: How San Diego Zoo Director Chuck Bieler Earned his Stripes” published by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Press.

The 314-page book is about more than Bieler’s zoo career, author Kathi Diamant said in a recent interview. It’s a multi-layered love story.

“There’s the love story between Chuck and his beloved (wife) Judy, and between Chuck and almost everyone he worked with,” she said. “But most crucial to the success of the San Diego Zoo was the extraordinary love affair between the Zoo and the citizens of San Diego.”

Diamant credits Bieler with leading the zoo into the 21st century — a legacy she admits she didn’t know despite her many years hosting the morning talk show SunUp San Diego on KFMB-TV and later working as a freelance writer, which included assignments for the zoo’s member magazine.

“As a freelance journalist in the early 1990s, I wrote more than a dozen ZOONOOZ articles, fully aware of the breathtakingly positive changes taking place within the Zoo but I never knew that Chuck Bieler was the man who made them happen,” she said in an email.
Bieler was hired in late 1969 to lead group sales after leaving a job at General Motors. He had no zoological background and knew little about animals when he started — something that became clear in his first week (and influenced the book’s title.).

Joan Embery — later well known as a zoo ambassador who frequently brought animals to meet Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” — was leading a big cat on a leash around the zoo, and she urged Bieler to greet the animal.

Afterward, he told a coworker he had never petted a lion before. “Chuck, I know you’re new at the Zoo,” his colleague replied, “but you should know — the cats with stripes are tigers.”

Children's Zoo attendant Mary Lieras and a pygmy goat pose with the zoo's Executive Director Chuck Bieler in 1979.
Children’s Zoo attendant Mary Lieras and a pygmy goat with Chuck Bieler in front a bus used to transport people to the Wild Animal Park during the gas crisis in 1979.
(Ron Garrison / San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance )

In 1973, Bieler became the director overseeing the zoo and the Wild Animal Park, now known as San Diego Zoo Safari Park. He held the job for a dozen years before the board of trustees of the Zoological Society of San Diego — now known as San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance — called for a change in leadership. Doug Myers took over as executive director and Bieler stayed on, eventually taking charge of the zoo’s development department, focusing on fundraising. He helped raise millions for zoo priorities. Do we know why they called for a change in leadership?

Said Diamant: “He carried on, without bitterness or resentment, never letting ego cloud his view and by doing so, Chuck has helped secure the Zoo’s financial stability into perpetuity.”

According to the book, Bieler established international partnerships that ultimately brought koalas and giant pandas to San Diego. He oversaw the organization during difficult financial challenges, particularly after the zoo took on the expense of running a second facility.

“There were times early on when we had to sell some animals to meet the payroll,” Bieler recalled in an interview. “Not a lot, but one or two. That was during the energy crisis and after we opened the Wild Animal Park.”

Bieler helped grow the zoo’s membership rolls, bringing a stable flow of revenue, and expanded its merchandising efforts. “People would say, Bieler, why are you building a gift shop, we need the money for the elephants. And I said, ‘You’re right, but we’ve got to build the gift shop so we get the money for the elephants.’ ”

The book lightly touches on the rise of animal-rights activism that emerged in the 1970s, including criticism leveled at the zoo following animal deaths. It described how Bieler faced allegations of mistreatment after a zebra died while being transported to Mexico in 1977 and then two years later after three tamarin monkeys in a breeding program died during a heat wave in 1979.

In an interview, Diamant said no topics were considered off the table as she wrote the book.

The role played by Bieler’s late wife, Judy, in supporting the zoo also was highlighted. She came from a prominent San Diego County family — the Goodwin family — which put down roots in local real estate in 1896. Her family contacts helped open doors. “It was kind of the Chuck and Judy show. So it worked out real well,” Bieler recalled in an interview.

The couple used the family’s Corte Madera ranch near Pine Valley to host staff, donors and influential friends. They wooed people, Diamant writes, “with open-pit BBQs, Bloody Mary brunches, and weekend getaways” and their hospitality in the space “proved to be a magic key to opening important doors.”

They developed close friendships with many of the philanthropists who went on to donate large sums to support zoo priorities, including Audrey Geisel, widow of children’s book author Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel; Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald’s Corp. founder Ray Kroc; and Helen Whittier Woodward, whose father helped develop Beverly Hills.

Bieler, who is still on the zoo’s payroll working one day a week in donor relations, said he’s most proud of how he helped stabilize the zoo’s finances. Diamant said his role extended far beyond that — influencing the establishment of professional and ethical standards at zoos around the country and helping shift the San Diego Zoo from being a living museum to focusing on conservation.

For his part, Bieler said he greatly enjoyed talking with Diamant as she researched the book. “To really think about your life, how you lived it and what you did, has been the most rewarding thing,” he said.