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  • Saving Wildlife

    September 13, 2022 2 min read

    Saving Wildlife

    The Remarkable Story of a Conservation Pioneer

    Physician scientist. Wildlife conservationist. Visionary leader. Family man. The inimitable Dr. Kurt Benirschke (“Dr. B”) was a trailblazer—passionate about gathering and sharing knowledge to make the world a better place for both people and wildlife. Whether he was sneaking vital veterinary medicine through Checkpoint Charlie into East Germany or flying through a raging thunderstorm in a single-engine plane to pick up chromosome samples in Paraguay, Dr. B was dedicated to solving problems and exploring ideas that would transform both human and veterinary science.

    Saving Wildlife: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Dr. Kurt Benirschke tells Dr. B’s inspiring and adventure-filled story. Written by his son Rolf Benirschke, former NFL All-Pro placekicker, the book describes how Dr. B’s insatiable curiosity took him from war-torn Germany to the United States to begin his extraordinary medical career. Intrigued by twins, the placenta, and the study of chromosomes, Dr. B secured a pathology residency at Harvard University and became the chief resident at Harvard’s second-largest teaching hospital. His curiosity about humans and wildlife next led him to Dartmouth College’s medical school in 1960, where he chaired the pathology department, and then finally to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) in 1970 as a founding faculty member of the then-new medical school.

    The close proximity to the San Diego Zoo allowed Dr. B to delve further into the world of endangered wildlife while still working at UCSD. He joined the Zoo’s newly formed research committee and then founded the Zoo’s Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species in 1975, building a team of scientists that would have an enormous impact on critically endangered, threatened, and vulnerable species such as the Przewalski’s horse, California condor, giant panda, southern white rhino, Chacoan peccary, and many more. Dr. B also began collecting tissue and genetic DNA samples from rare and endangered animals. These early collections would become the foundation of the “Frozen Zoo®,” now part of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s (SDZWA) Wildlife Biodiversity Bank.

    Dr. Kurt Benirschke spent his life gaining—and generously sharing— knowledge. In doing so, he made a historic impact on modern medicine and conservation biology that continues to influence our world today. Yet, as Oliver Ryder, Ph.D., director of conservation genetics for SDZWA, says, “All of Dr. B’s scientific accomplishments don’t address the full measure of this remarkable man.” In his foreword to Saving Wildlife, Ollie Ryder explains: “It takes the insightful view of his offspring—in this case, his youngest son, Rolf—to bring the totality of this unique individual to light. Interwoven in the pages of Saving Wildlife are personal reflections that reveal an amazing life and the earned mutual respect, appreciation, and genuine love forged between a father and son.”

    Saving Wildlife, published by San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Press, can be purchased at ShopZoo.com and in gift shops at the Zoo and Safari Park.


    Saving Wildlife: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Dr. Kurt Bernirschke


    *As seen in the September/October 2022 issue of The Journal.

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