When Director George P. Vierheller retired in 1962 after more than 40 years at the Zoo, he was a legend in the zoo world - and one of the most photographed men in St. Louis.
For 36 years, Vierheller was the public face of the Zoo, posing with his pals Miss Jim the elephant, Phil the gorilla, Harry the rhino and Moby Dick, an elephant seal. Under his direction, chimp, lion and elephant shows were developed not only to draw huge crowds but also worldwide publicity for the growing Zoo.
"George Vierheller started almost from scratch and built up one of the most important zoos in the world. He was a wholly dedicated man who loved his zoo and wanted everybody else to love it also,'' wrote Marlin Perkins in his autobiography "My Wild Kingdom.'' Perkins was an alumnus of Vierheller's staff and succeeded him as director.
Vierheller was in his mid-30s in 1918 when he was appointed secretary of the newly formed Zoological Board of Control. He was named director in 1926, following the death of superintendent Martin Angermeier. In 1928, he was named to the new position of director of the St. Louis Zoological Park, a position he held until he retired in 1962. It was a second career for Vierheller, who had been a telegrapher until he developed "telegrapher's thumb."
"Shortly after I became a zoo man, a friend of mine advised me: ‘George, don't merely sit in the chair and listen to it squeak.' How right he was. Directing a zoo is not a desk job," Vierheller wrote in "Mr. Zoo,'' an unpublished manuscript about his life, where he described himself as a theatrical director, a casting director and a talent scout; an advertising man, a newshound, a business man, a merchandising consultant, a personnel manager and a public relations expert; and all these with the added responsibilities of a dietitian, a psychologist and a first aid diagnostician, a veterinarian and a dentist.
Vierheller, who dropped out of school at age 12 to help support his family when his father's vision failed, was a self-taught man who read everything he could about zoology.
In 1930, he was elected Chairman of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums. In 1949 -- his 30th year of service with the Zoo -- he was given both the St. Louis Award for "extraordinary work as head of the Zoo'' and the Page One Civic Award of the St. Louis Newspaper Guild "for the distinction he has brought to St. Louis by his knowledge, his showmanship and his dedicated devotion to the public."
"Our goals have always been twofold: to maintain a sense of decency and responsibility to the public and to the animals we show,'' Vierheller told St. Louis Commerce magazine in June 1957. "A zoological garden...should be a place where animals are viewed in spacious surroundings, enabling visitors to attain a sense of intimacy with the animals, as if they were observing them in their native habitat, but safely and at close range."
Vierheller explained that the second goal should be to make the Zoo "come alive" for visitors by providing relaxation and entertainment, as well as educational facilities. "To this end, we have developed our animal shows. If you haven't seen them, you should!''
After Vierheller retired, the Zoo erected a fountain and life-size bronze statue in his honor. When he died in 1966, newspaper obituaries used a nickname he loved. They called him "Mr. Zoo."
(Excerpt from the book Animals Always, 100 Years at the Saint Louis Zoo)
Endowed Fund for Zoological Medicine
In June 2006, Lana Mueller Jordan and her family announced their commitment of a $500,000 gift through the LMJ Foundation. In honor of her grandfather's dedication to the care of animals, this endowed gift was named the George Vierheller Endowed Fund for Zoological Medicine.