How the San Diego Zoo’s Joan Embery Became Famous

The epitaph on my tombstone may well read: He hired animal-handler Joan Embery as the San Diego Zoo’s ambassador and set her on the road to fame.

I spent 50 years in a colorful PR and journalism career. But my naming Joan to the new zoo post and placing her on “The Tonight Show” seems to be what folks most remember.

And why not? Joan’s nearly 100 appearances with Johnny Carson made her a familiar face to millions of Americans. Snuggled by snakes and loved by leopards, she was a natural success at bringing the fun, excitement and drama of the wild-animal world into viewers’ homes.

Her climb to celebrity status began with her first booking on “The Tonight Show” in 1970 with the young elephant she’d taught to paint. When artist, Carol, hesitated to perform, then turned with brush in trunk, swiping it over Johnny’s crotch, it convulsed the audience and Ed McMahon. Joan, 21, became a “regular” over the next four decades, providing millions of dollars in advertising to our then-financially-strapped park.

(Little Carol subsequently painted on her poster board for the 12 million viewers that night – and gained notoriety as our artistic elephant for years, gaining tons of publicity!)

As Joan’s fame spread, she appeared on other network shows with zoo residents and did hundreds of TV and radio interviews. She subsequently traveled to Africa, England, Australia and other parts of the world, spreading wildlife conservation messages, while promoting our world-famous tourist attraction.

Truth be known, Joan became our second zoo ambassador. I goofed in picking the first. And, of course, there was never a need for a third. Joan made publicizing and promoting the San Diego Zoo a career for the next 35 years, until her recent retirement.

In the late ’60s, the zoo experienced a steady attendance decline (due in part to competition from the new SeaWorld marine park). Our PR Department was given the task of coming up with ways to attract more visitors to our burgeoning menagerie.

Consequently, as head of the zoo’s publicity department since ’65, I proposed selecting and training a young girl to serve as zoo ambassador. After due consideration, the board of trustees and zoo director approved a small budget for a year’s trial.

My idea had actually sprung from an earlier visit to our Children’s Zoo by a young, female Disneyland roving ambassador. If it was good enough for creative genius Walt, I remember thinking, then why not someone similar for us?

Several hundred girls responded to our first call for a photogenic young woman, well-spoken, with a love of wildlife. The chosen one would give talks, take VIPS on zoo tours and make appearances at events such as the city’s upcoming 200th anniversary.

Long story short, I managed the first time to pick the wrong applicant, one who was not good at handling animals, nervous about public speaking and didn’t know the city well.

At the end of her year, we went back to the drawing board. I revisited our resume file and put the word out publicly again to mild response. One day it was pointed out that a good candidate worked right under our noses in the Children’s Zoo – Joan Embery.

The zoo had hired college student Joan, 18, to work with the baby animals. So with several years’ experience under her belt by 1969, I had gotten to know and admire her devotion to our orphaned wildlife and her job.

I swore that Joan could talk to the animals-and vice versa. I knew she could easily spot the pout of an insulted elephant. In fact one of her elephant friends would actually stick out a foot to trip Joan as she ran by.

Several times, the always-cheery Miss Embery had invited me to come into an animal’s enclosure with her. She would offer interesting bits of info – such as the reason most zoos have only female elephants is because bulls are too dangerous when they are in musth during mating season. She told me their hormones rage to the degree they can pull up concrete, or even try to kill their keepers.

And I recall once watching in awe as our future “ambassador” stuck her hand in an elephant’s mouth to pat a wiggly, pink tongue. “It’s a greeting to them – like shaking hands,” she explained as I watched, jaw agape. “Go ahead – try it!” she urged. But I was too chicken, deciding I didn’t want to be that friendly.

For the second round, I named Joan the zoo’s next ambassador. And in subsequent years, I watched with pride at the way she handled herself in public and in media appearances. Her true love of, and devotion to, wild life, came across to audiences, giving her a fame she didn’t seek, while the zoo and her wildlife causes prospered.

And many Carson fans today still remember the “Tonight Show” segment when Joan let Johnny hold a little marmoset, which climbed up and relieved itself on top of the famous host’s head. Johnny’s expression is captured on reruns of “The Best of Carson.”

It topped even the night when we took “Dudley Duplex,” a baby two-headed king snake, to the NBC show. It slithered up Johnny Carson’s dress shirt sleeve to hide and wouldn’t come out. Johnny kept calling up his sleeve: “Come out, fellas – come out now!”

Selecting the wild-life-loving teen-ager as Zoo Ambassador rightfully ranks, in retrospect, as the smartest (or luckiest move I ever made). Other than marrying my wife of 60 years!

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