Empress & Queenie

The Zoo’s first elephants made a huge impression from the moment they arrived in San Diego.
  • 1920s
  • 1930s

In 1923, two female Asian elephants named Empress and Queenie came to San Diego by train. Dr. Wegeforth and the Zoo’s head keeper, Harry Edwards, went to the station to meet them. However, it seemed no one had arranged for a way to transport the elephants to the Zoo. This was a considerable predicament. But Wegeforth was not to be daunted by the situation, and he thought that the elephants were probably used to being ridden. He took a chance, and with a boost, he scrambled up onto Empress’s shoulders—and she didn’t protest. Wegeforth determined that by tugging on her ears, he could give her directions. Edwards then got up on Queenie, and slowly but surely they guided the elephants out of the train station. The elephants walked with the men on their shoulders through the streets of downtown, all the way back to the Zoo. You can imagine the startled and amazed looks they got!

The elephants were now at the Zoo, but Dr. Wegeforth had to find a way to keep them there. He had taken out a loan to purchase them and needed funding to pay it back. He went to prominent local businessman John Spreckels and presented his plans, hoping to convince Spreckels to donate the funds. By now, Wegeforth had gained a reputation in San Diego as being quite persuasive and persistent, and Spreckels knew what he was up against. He said no; but of course Wegeforth continued pressing. Spreckels finally laughed and said jokingly, “I will, providing you can get whiter elephants than some I already have,” referring to some recent unfortunate business deals. Wegeforth let it drop, but he hadn’t given up. He cooked up a plan.

He invited Spreckels to the Zoo some weeks later, on the pretense of seeing some interesting snakes. After seeing those, staff members told Spreckels that Wegeforth had something else to show him. They took Spreckels to the makeshift elephant yard—where he saw two snowy white elephants standing there. Wegeforth and the keepers had used powdered white chalk and flour to completely cover the animals. Spreckels began to chuckle, then laugh out loud. He said, “Well, no one can deny that they are really white elephants.” He called Wegeforth a rascal, but in the end he sat down and wrote out a check, not only for the loan but also for an exhibit area and Elephant House for Empress and Queenie.

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