Never in his wildest dreams did Chuck Bieler ’57, P’90, emeritus executive director and development director at the San Diego Zoo, think he’d make a career out of working at a zoo, let alone one of the most popular zoos in the world.
He didn’t go to school to be a zoologist, nor was he a big animal guy. While he says he was always a dog person, for much of his early life, his affinity to animals stopped there.
Rather, Bieler attended Gettysburg College during the Eisenhower era—studying political science and participating in ROTC. He says he’ll never forget the day he and a few of his friends spotted the presidential vehicle around town and followed it to Pickett's Charge, where President Dwight D. Eisenhower met with Sir Robert Montgomery, lieutenant governor of Punjab, to talk about the battle—a moment he still wishes he got on camera, but he was out of film.
“It was a good fit for me at the time,” said Bieler, recalling his experience at Gettysburg College. “Growing up on a farm, being the youngest of nine siblings, and then being the only one to attend college—it forced me to grow up. It helped me begin to realize that there’s so much more to the world, and I met so many good people who wanted to go on and do good things.”
He had his sights set on joining the Army after graduation, which he did for six years. But along the way, he also fell in love with his late wife, Judy, found steady work at General Motors, relocated to San Diego to be closer to her family, and in his search for a new job—frankly, any job in the area—ended up at the zoo.
“My sister-in-law said, ‘Why don’t you try the zoo?’ And I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ But then this job came up. The zoo wanted to start a group sales department—promote activities and special events—and I said, ‘I can do that.’ I went, applied, and told them, ‘Look, I promise you I'll stay a year and I'll make it a better place than it is,’” Bieler said.
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
More than 50 years, three positions, two prestigious zoological awards, and one book later, he refers to his career at the San Diego Zoo as a “serendipitous love affair.” The new biography, “The Heart of the Zoo: How San Diego Zoo Director Chuck Bieler Earned His Stripes,” written by Kathi Diamant and set to launch later this year, tells the winding yet heartwarming story of Bieler’s days at the zoo, and the passionate people who made his work successful and worth it.
Some may wonder how Bieler managed to work his way up to executive director at the San Diego Zoo with little to no zoo knowledge. For several years he asked himself that same question. But, as he reflects on his journey in the book, his answer is humble and simple: He said yes much more often than he said no, was surrounded by a talented staff and lovingly supportive wife, and wasn’t afraid to try new things.
Saying “Yes,” and raising funds to make new pursuits possible, led to the development of the Wild Animal Park (now the San Diego Zoo Safari Park) and the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species (now the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance), and increasing the koala population at the zoo, among many other noteworthy accomplishments.
“We took a facility in Balboa Park up north in Escondido and turned it into a multimillion-dollar asset for the city, and there’s tremendous pride in that,” Bieler said. “I’ve kind of been the cheerleader at the San Diego Zoo, even though I was responsible for it a lot of the time. Even in my years as development director, I managed the cash and said, ‘What are we going to do next?’ The staff would come to me with their ideas and I’d tell them, ‘Sure, let’s give it a try.’ I was surrounded by good people doing good things and making me look good, and from my perspective, I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
While Bieler helped the zoo reach new levels of success, he said he’d be fooling you if he referred to it as easy work. Nothing worth it comes easily, especially at the San Diego Zoo. The zoo staff has an internal mantra—putting their right arms up and left arms down to symbolize the highs and lows.
“There’s not a job in the world that has highs and lows like we do at the zoo, and not one or two, but a couple of dozen every day,” he said. “You don’t know when the next one is going to be or what it's going to be. It could be the birth of a new animal. It could be the death of another. You could be breaking a new record or finding out one of your projects is not performing as well as you hoped.”
The job that Bieler never knew he wanted is one he never wants to leave. While he says he retired in 2005, he still comes into the San Diego Zoo’s philanthropy department once a week—serving as a consultant—and he hopes to continue helping in some capacity for years to come.
During his tenure, many people have asked him why he invested so much of his life into the zoo.
To this, he replies: “The highs make it all worth it, and we worked very hard to find answers to eliminate many of the lows. At the end of the day, if you don’t venture into the unknown, you don't get the benefit of the achievements when you succeed. If you believe in the purpose of your work and believe that you can do whatever you put your mind to, you can do anything. That’s been my philosophy at the zoo—and in life.”
By Molly Foster
Photos courtesy of the San Diego Zoo