A mother’s love made all the difference for this Baird’s tapir—and that “mom” was a human being!
  • 1930s
  • 1940s

Captain Fred Lewis, a friend to the Zoo who offered his boat for expeditions, brought a Baird’s tapir youngster from South America to the San Diego Zoo in 1934. She was named Mickey, and she was the first of her species at the Zoo. Unfortunately, upon arrival she was thin and melancholy, and keepers feared she wouldn’t survive. Her finicky appetite made feeding her a frustrating endeavor—until director Belle Benchley herself stepped in. As Belle would discover, feeding the soul is just as important as nourishing the body.

Belle took over Mickey’s care, lovingly preparing mixed cereals and staying late in order to give the tapir “the shortest possible night between feedings.” Belle grew increasingly attached to Mickey, and the feeling was mutual. As Belle wrote in her book, My Life in a Manmade Jungle, “to Mickey, I am not a zoo director... but, rather, an indulgent, affectionate foster mother who patted and washed and petted her when she was a lonely little homesick tapir, and let her rub her sticky flexible nose even upon my face, so that she might be sure not only of warm, tasty food but of trusted companionship while she ate and slept.”

ith the benefit of this TLC, Mickey recovered and grew up healthy. She always had a place in Belle’s heart. Belle visited the tapir every day, and the keepers referred to “Mrs. Benchley’s string”—her area of responsibility at the Zoo. “Mickey is perhaps more nearly my own adopted child than any other creature in the Zoo,” Belle wrote. “I am sure she has never had a doubt that I am her real mother.”

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