In 1969, Charles L. “Chuck” Bieler had just started as group sales manager in the marketing department at the San Diego Zoo when a young Joan Embery, who worked in the Children’s Zoo, offered to introduce him to one of the big cats. After some trepidation, he agreed. Walking away from that encounter, he confided to a colleague that he had never petted a lion before. When she realized he wasn’t joking, she whispered back, “I know you are new to the Zoo, Chuck, but the cats with stripes are tigers.”
From that inauspicious beginning, a five-decade-long career bloomed, and today Chuck is still an employee of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, the longest-serving in the history of the institution. He helped guide San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance through some of its most challenging times, rising to become one of the leaders in the national and international zoo world, and achieving its highest honors. After 53 years, he works as director emeritus, advising staff, and serving as an ambassador.
It’s a remarkable tenure that has earned him the respect, admiration, and love of all who have worked with him, not only within San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and the city of San Diego, but throughout the zoological world. In 2016, he received the R. Marlin Perkins Award, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ highest honor. It wasn’t just his dedication, hard work, vision, and ability to keep focused on the mission that led to his success; it was who he is as a human being and how he works with others that has made the difference.
Chuck Bieler is the first person to say he didn’t do it alone. With his beloved wife, Judy, by his side, Chuck built connections with the local community and his Zoo family, cemented relationships with important donors, championed science and research, and established international partnerships that ultimately brought wildlife like koalas and giant pandas to San Diego.
It would take a book to tell all of Chuck’s stories. Fortunately, Heart of the Zoo: How Zoo Director Chuck Bieler Earned His Stripes has been published by San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Press in association with Beckon Books, written by Kathi Diamant. At times harrowing and heartwarming, the book is filled with inside anecdotes and humorous details, capturing Chuck’s tireless efforts to help create an international conservation organization that works to create a world where all life thrives.
In one sense, Heart of the Zoo is a love story between the people of San Diego and their zoological garden. Chuck often credits the Zoo’s extraordinary success not only to the people who work there, but those who have supported it over the years with their memberships, admission fees, and generous donations. Heart of the Zoo is available now and can be purchased at ShopZoo.com and in gift shops at the Zoo and Safari Park.