For 19 years, a brown bear named Caesar ruled the Zoo’s bear exhibit and was quite a force to be reckoned with.
  • 1910s
  • 1930s

The Zoo’s first brown bear came with the name Caesar—even though she was actually female. She arrived in 1917 at two years of age, and it was quickly apparent how she got her imposing name. She had been living as a mascot aboard a Navy ship, and although things had largely been fine, she went on a rampage one day, running through the ship corridors and knocking down everyone left and right—including the captain. The sailors decided that perhaps she was getting too big and strong for them after all, and they decided to donate her to the San Diego Zoo.

In 1923, Zoo founder Dr. Harry Wegeforth opened the first open-air grotto exhibit in a US zoo, and the inhabitants were a black bear, a polar bear, and Caesar, all occupying different areas with wire dividers between them. When the bears were let into the new exhibit, they explored and sniffed at the hard-packed dirt floor, as the staff watched to make sure things were okay. All seemed well, so they headed home for the night. The next morning, Dr. Wegeforth arrived to an astounding sight: an enormous tunnel, described as big enough to drive a small truck into, had been dug into the rock-hard dirt floor of Caesar’s section. She had created a huge pile of rubble in the process, and was standing at the top of it, making the acquaintance of the polar bear.

The staff members were all dumbfounded by what this bear had managed to achieve overnight—they described it as something even heavy equipment and dynamite couldn't have done. The bears were taken off exhibit to their bedrooms, and the humans set to work to fill in the hole. It took them three days to fix what Caesar had done in one night! They also added concrete to the exhibit floor to keep her from doing it again.

Throughout her 19 years at the Zoo, Caesar was always the dominant bear in any group, and the others knew not to mess with her. Zoo director Belle Benchley referred to her as “the tyrant,” but it was with the same affection and respect that all the staff had for this remarkable bear.

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