Q and A: Catching up with retired St. Louis Zoo director Charlie Hoessle | St. Louis Public Radio

Q and A: Catching up with retired St. Louis Zoo director Charlie Hoessle

Oct 4, 2016

For St. Louisans of a certain age, the statue outside the herpetarium at the St. Louis Zoo depicts a familiar figure: Charles H. Hoessle — better known as “Charlie” — who taught them about snakes and exotic reptiles when they were schoolchildren in the 1960s.

Hoessle worked for the zoo for 40 years. He helped start the zoo's education department in 1964 and hosted the weekly “Saint Louis Zoo Show’’ on local TV from 1968 to 1978.

Since retiring in 2002, he has continued to serve as a goodwill ambassador for the zoo because, he says, “I’m a bit of a ham, and I like talking about the zoo.” He’s been named as one of “The Colorful Characters of St. Louis,” in a new book about local celebrities. 

Hoessle started as a keeper in the reptile house, which is now named for him. He served as director for 20 years, helping the renowned St. Louis institution transition away from the entertaining animals shows of yesteryear to its focus today on education, research and conservation.

“I’ve kind of lived the childhood dream. I didn’t plan it that way, but it worked out,” he said, during an interview at his Sunset Hills home with its zebra-striped mailbox and lush banana trees in the front yard.

Hoessle is “85 now, going on 18” and has been married for 64 years to his high school sweetheart, Marilyn. They met at the old Cleveland High School in south St. Louis and have been married for 64 years.

Marilyn and Charlie Hoessle at their Sunset Hills home. The banana tree was started from a tuber given to him by gardeners at the St. Louis Zoo.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

“Growing old is mandatory, and growing up is optional,” he said, grinning.

In 2003, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums presented Hoessle with the R. Marlin Perkins Award, its highest individual honor. Perkins, famous for hosting the nationally televised “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” was zoo director in the 1960s and gave Hoessle his start.

More recently, the Zoo & Aquarium Video Archive has included Hoessle’s biography in its collection of biographies on the nation's prominent zoo directors. 

Here are excerpts from our recent interview with Hoessle:

Q. What year did you start at the zoo?

Hoessle: I started at the zoo on April Fools Day 1963.

Q. What was the zoo like then?

Hoessle: Well, it was a popular zoo. It was a great zoo, but it was still an old zoo. We were famous for the animal shows. We had a chimp show. Elephant show. Lions and tigers show. And we had a great birdhouse and reptile house, and our bear pits were world-famous. But times were changing. Forests were disappearing. Jungles were disappearing. Animals were disappearing.

The importance of breeding endangered species in captivity so that they would be available for zoos in the future — and reintroducing endangered species that are bred in captivity back into the wild — that became high priority.

The zoo evolved from show business to a fine breeding center. But, also, we took all the animals out from behind bars. Back in the ’60s, the lions were behind bars, the monkeys were behind bars. So, now the lions are in large outdoor enclosures. The apes and primates are behind glass in naturalistic exhibits and in family groups.

Q. Doing away with the animal shows wasn’t a popular decision.

Hoessle. No, it wasn’t. In fact, there was a petition when we closed the chimpanzee show that said, ‘Bring the monkey show back and get rid of the zoo director.’

We had to educate people. That’s a strong role the zoo has in educating the public, both children and adults, about the natural world. That’s the biggest role that the zoos throughout the world play today.

The chimp show, particularly, put the zoo on the world map. During World War II, when you went to a movie show, at the end there was news of the day and it was all about the war. It was sad. So, they included something funny. They had cartoons, and there also was a segment about the St. Louis Zoo monkey show.

This portrait was used to create the statue of Charlie Hoessle that's outside the herpetarium at the St. Louis Zoo.
Credit Courtesy of St. Louis Zoo

Q. You've spoken about how you were self-taught — that you didn’t have a formal education in zoology.

Hoessle: I met my wife in high school, and we both went to the old Harris Teachers College. I took every science course I could. I went two years and ran out of money. Then I got drafted and went in the Army.

When I came back, I ultimately ended up with my own pet shop. With tropical fish and birds and parakeets. Then I put some snakes on display. And I had so many people wanting to know about snakes. I talked to Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts and anybody who wanted to listen, trying to raise the social status of snakes — and, instead, I raised my social status.

One day, Carol Perkins [wife of then-zoo director Marlin Perkins] was in my audience at the natural history museum at Oak Knoll Park, and she went home and said, ‘Marlin, a young man gave an interesting talk on snakes. He ought to be working at the zoo.’ Marlin called me up the next day and said, ‘I’d like to talk to you because we have an opening in the reptile house.’

At that time, I had the pet shop for about 10 years. I had three kids, and I didn’t know how I was going to pay for their college education. The zoo offered me a full-time job, a pension, medical insurance, plus the opportunity of working with animals, which I jumped at. And Marlin said he hoped some day to start an education program and maybe I could be part of it.

I worked in the reptile house, but every time a school group came I grabbed a snake and made sure all the kids got to touch it. Then we started some education programs at the zoo. And I worked as a relief keeper, and I helped out anywhere and pretty much learned everything. I kind of worked my way up through the ranks and did what nobody else wanted to do and ultimately became zoo director.

Q. That’s the kind of story that doesn’t happen anymore.

Hoessle: I have a lot of young people talk to me. They’d like to work at the zoo some day. I tell them to get all the formal education you can. Educate yourself. Books were the story of my success, but get that formal education. At least a bachelor’s degree, but if you can get a master’s degree it would be even better.

I probably was happiest when I was a keeper or curator because I didn’t have the problems or challenges the zoo director faces. As zoo director, I did have a chance to escort safaris to Africa. My wife and I had the chance to travel all over the world. But I never looked forward to meetings. As you go up the ladder you have less interaction with the animal collection and the people, for that matter.

By the way, when I started at the zoo it was 100 percent male staff. There was a lady switchboard operator and a woman who worked in finance. Today, 80 percent of our keepers are ladies, and they do a good job. It’s a changing world.

Q. During the 1960s, wasn’t the zoo struggling financially?

Hoessle: When I started at the zoo in 1963, shortly after Marlin arrived, money was very tight. Marlin would give us a cash allowance, and we would go to Goodwill and buy golf clubs for $1 apiece. And our maintenance foreman would make snake hooks for us for handling snakes. We couldn’t afford commercial snake hooks. We also bought secondhand pots and pans [to use for water bowls] for the small mammal house. The dollars were that hard to come by. It wasn’t until the ‘70s when the Zoo-Museum District was formed that all of the institutions were able to improve to become the world-class institutions that they are today.

Charlie Hoessle with his mentor, Marlin Perkins, who gave him his start at the St. Louis Zoo.
Credit Courtesy of St. Louis Zoo

Q. You really have witnessed many major changes.

Hoessle: And I see the changes taking place today. The zoo is doing great work in wildlife conservation all over the world. They’re raising private money for that; that’s not tax dollars. People contribute money to the zoo for conservation purposes. They’re very forward-thinking.

Q. You’ve had a very interesting life.

Hoessle: I always tell people, I am a product of the St. Louis Public Schools system. And I had a lot of people who helped me along the way. You can’t do anything good alone.

I grew up in south St. Louis. My parents were German immigrants. They loved nature, and they went hiking in the woods a lot. And I was fascinated with anything alive. Ultimately, I got fascinated with snakes because everybody was afraid of them, and I found them interesting.

When I became zoo director I had to surround myself with people who had skills that I didn’t have. I had a group of people that were smarter than I in their areas of endeavor, and I’m proud that a great many of those people stayed with the zoo. That’s part of my legacy — that I had a great team.

Q. Do you still volunteer at the Zoo?

Hoessle: I mostly help with fundraising and behind the scenes. And friend-raising. I do a lot of friend-raising.

Q. Do you still enjoy traveling?

Hoessle: We do a lot of traveling. When I retired from the zoo 14 years ago, I had been in all seven continents, but I quite honestly hadn’t been in most of the national parks.  My wife and I had saved up, and we bought a camper van. We have hit all the major national parks and some of them a dozen times, and we still continue to do that. I like the whole world. I work in my yard. I’m an amateur horticulturist. I like the birds. I like the mammals. I collect rocks. My wife will tell you that I collect too many things. And I have so many hobbies. It keeps me busy.