Saturday, January 23, 2010
The Sacking of Frank Buck
Zoo director hired, then things got wild
By Richard Crawford
Frank H. Buck, one of the foremost zoological collectors of the United States, arrived yesterday from San Francisco and at once assumed the duties of his position as director of the San Diego Zoo. Under his direction, the splendid zoo here is expected to increase rapidly in size and reputation.
— San Diego Union, June 14, 1923
The adventures of Frank ‘Bring ’Em Back Alive’ Buck captivated millions of people throughout the world in the 1930s and ’40s. Celebrated to this day for his exploits as a wild-animal hunter and trader, Buck is less well known for his brief, tumultuous tenure as the first full-time, salaried director of the San Diego Zoo.
Signed by the Zoological Society to a three-year contract that paid $4,000 annually, Buck, 41, came to San Diego on the strong recommendation of Dr. William T. Hornaday, director of the famed Bronx Zoo.
He started working in San Diego in June 1923, voicing excitement for his new job to reporters. “We have the best zoo west of Chicago,” Buck boasted, “and we are going to make it even bigger and better.”
He began with an ambitious building program, constructing new exhibit cages for birds and monkeys and acquiring new animals for the growing collection.
But his efforts were not appreciated by the board of the Zoological Society, and particularly its president and founder of the zoo, Dr. Harry M. Wegeforth. A strong-willed, hands-on president, Wegeforth walked the zoo grounds daily and immediately clashed with the independent-minded Buck.
After only three months, the zoo’s board fired Buck, charging that the man “could not be trusted.”
Buck sued the Zoological Society and Wegeforth for breach of contract. Claiming that he had given up his lucrative animal-collecting business to work in San Diego and suffered injury to his reputation, Buck sought damages of $22,500.
In his court deposition, Buck cited a litany of grievances, most of them focused upon the actions of Wegeforth. Buck claimed the zoo president had interfered with “practically everything” and had conspired with the board to “belittle and disparage” his efforts as director. He had been fired, Buck believed, after he built a bird enclosure without personal authorization from Wegeforth.
He also made surprising allegations about Wegeforth. A physician, Wegeforth took a strong interest in veterinary medicine and personally monitored the health of the animals. But Buck charged that the doctor had killed a sick tiger by dosing the animal with calomel, and had been responsible for the deaths of 150 snakes that had been force-fed with a sausage stuffer.
A different story emerged in court from the testimony of board member Thomas N. Faulconer and several others. All witnesses flatly denied Buck’s charge that snakes had been killed by force-feeding, and they suggested the sick tiger had died after a suspicious blow to the head.
According to these witnesses, Buck’s problems
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