Meet Rudolph H. Bell, Head Chef of the Bronx Zoo

Chefs are, as a general rule, an exceedingly temperamental bunch. Rudolph H. Bell, head Chef of the Bronx Zoo was an exception, and he met his daily task of feeding the Zoo’s animals with good humor. He’d been with the Zoo at the time it was founded in 1899, have taken the job after working in the circus. The animals under his care had ballooned from 4 to 3,262, and many of them were finicky eaters. Bridget, the reigning queen of the chimpanzees, refused to perform her signature trick of posing like an actress unless her rice contained raisins. The two baboons, Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth, would often throw their meals at observers rather than eat it; Chef Bell only served them food which would do little damage in case it ended up as a projectile rather than dinner. At 300-years-old, Buster the tortoise demanded the privileges of age, and received a daily slice of watermelon.

What the other animals lacked in picky eating they made up for in volume. Judging by his name Peter Murphy was a hippopotamus of Irish extraction; he devoured 6 heads of cabbage, 9 bunches of carrots, 18 loaves of bread, and 36 bananas at a single sitting. Each of the bears received 20 loaves of bread per day, and 5 pounds of beef and 3 pounds of fish per week, and the seals went through barrels of butterfish.

Bell’s efforts weren’t confined to the kitchen, after years of working with animals the Zoo considered him an expert of sorts, to be consulted in unusual situations. Sometime in the 1910s, one of the buffalos gave birth to a rambunctious youngster. In a moment of absent mindedness, Mother Buffalo let Junior wander into a miry spot, and in an effort to extract himself Junior broke his leg. Realizing his predicament, several keepers went inside the pen to render assistance. Doubting the sincerity of their motives, Mother charged the group and the keepers scattered.

They sought the advice of Chef Bell, who concocted a scheme with his assistant, Loring. A former cowboy, Loring entered the pen mounted on a pony, and by fast riding around mother and yelling at the top of his lungs, sought to distract Mother while Bell scrambled to pick up the calf and run to safety. Everything went according to plan until Junior let out a plaintive bleat. When Mother heard it, she charged Bell with her head down. Loring tried to ride between them, but the pony would have none of it, and threw him.  Bell was on his own.

“I looked behind me,” he said, “and saw her coming. Dropping the calf, I made for the fence. But the next thing I knew, I didn’t know anything! Afterward, when I woke up in the hospital, and was strong enough to receive company, they told me how it happened. She picked me up on her horns and tossed me into the air. They say I flew through some tree branches like a bird and landed outside the corral. I had to have an operation then for my injuries; and two years after that I had to have another operation.” Meanwhile, back at the Zoo, the keepers found a solution to the Junior problem. They covered a two-wheeled cart with a box about the size of a piano crate, closed at the top and on the sides, and open at the bottom. Two men got inside and rolled the contraption inside the pen. Mother charged it repeatedly, but could make no impression upon it. The cart was placed over Junior, he was hauled inside, and ten minutes later found himself in the Zoo’s hospital.

Bell eventually returned to his kitchen. In a single day, the Zoo’s denizens consumed 175 loaves of bread, 250 pounds of beef, 15 heads of cabbage, 36 bunches of carrots, 2 barrels of potatoes, 450 bananas, 150 apples, 4 dozen oranges, 15 pounds of boiled rice, 25 quarts of milk, and 500 pounds of hay, not to mention the assorted birdseed, extra seasonal vegetables, the various rodents and insects consumed at the Reptile House, and of course, Buster’s watermelon. To prepare it all, Chef Bell had a gigantic combination kitchen and butcher shop at his disposal, complete with two huge refrigerators, a sink so large one could bath in it, and three big tables at which he and his assistants doled out the animal’s meals. Chef Bell retired in 1935, much beloved by his fellow Zoo employees, and most of the animals; Mother Buffalo was suspected of still bearing a grudge.

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  1. What a brilliant post, informative and highly entertaining. As a Dubliner, I love the idea of a hippo “of Irish extraction” ! The buffalo story is great.

  2. Glenn A Bell

     /  April 11, 2013

    This gentleman is my Great Grandfather and It is such a blessing to find this post. I am sharing this with my family and friends. Do you know when he passed away? Thank you so much and God Bless you!!
    Glenn A Bell


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