Former Saint Louis Zoo director Charlie Hoessle is many things, but retiring isn't one of them.
The 80-year-old naturalist and environmentalist floats on Missouri rivers, snorkels streams in the Ozark Mountains and hikes through the shallow swamps in Southern Illinois, where he collects reptiles, fish and amphibians—still, for the zoo.
“I have scientific collectors’ permits,” said Hoessle, who routinely turns over rocks with kid-like glee and scientific curiosity to see what lies beneath. Snakes are what most interest him, and Hoessle recently relocated a copperhead from his Sunset Hills yard.
Snakes are a misunderstood species, Hoessle says. “People are afraid of things they don’t understand.”
Hoessle knows his animals. He worked at the zoo for 40 years and retired eight years ago when he was 72. He is also a herpetologist: one who studies reptiles and amphibians.
Often sporting a field vest over a military-style shirt with epaulets and cargo shorts, Hoessle still looks very much like the explorer. His hair and moustache are snow white now; his face is creased slightly like worn linen. Yet he is agile, trim and remains active.
“When I retired, I didn’t want to shrivel up and grow old,” Hoessle said.
Although he no longer leads expeditions to Mexico, climbs Mount Killamajaro, or escorts safaris to South Africa, Hoessle travels stateside in a recreational-vehicle camper dubbed Tortuga, Spanish for turtle.
“A turtle travels with his house,” said Hoessle, whose home on wheels is equipped with a furnace, air conditioning, shower and commode—all good when you are gone for weeks at a time.
Hoessle, a free spirit, likes to travel.
Since retiring in 2002, he has trekked 120,000 miles in his RV, traipsing throughout North America, beginning in Alaska, touring Canadian and US national parks. This is his second RV.
His wife accompanies him, riding shotgun. Although Marilyn Hoessle loves the view, she is not quite the animal enthusiast her husband is.
In 59 years of marriage, she has rafted down remote rivers only to be picked up by an airplane and ridden elephants in India. “She tolerates me,” said Hoessle, grinning broadly.
“One of Marilyn’s favorite expressions is ‘Well, here we are again, in the middle of no-where.’”
And that is where Charlie Hoessle likes to be: immersed in nature, and lost in thought.
“I am still awed by things right here in America,” Hoessle said. He especially enjoys biking an old Indian trail in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park. “I can ride for miles and miles and not see anyone,” he said.
But on most days, the octogenarian, can be found making the rounds in : swimming at its , grabbing a cup of coffee straight up and visiting with acquaintances there who have become friends.
Hoessle is a creature of habit as well as a social animal. He lived near Webster Groves when he began working at the zoo. Back then conversations were abbreviated.
“Now I have time to visit, to solve all the problems of the world, or to create new ones,” said Hoessele, recently at in Webster Groves. He's known as the ‘unofficial mayor’ there and looks like he's running for office, working the crowd.
“I shake hands with the men, hug the women and smile at the babies,” Hoessle said.
Susan Favazza first met the zookeeper 12 years ago at the Webster coffee and bagel shop.
“Charlie would be making the rounds, like he was the proprietor,” Favazza said. “My husband and I used to have a morning date about three times a week for coffee after I took our youngest to school,” she said. “Charlie and I started having small conversations, and before you know it, we are best friends.
“He has vicariously taken me to China, to New Zealand and Australia,” Favazza said about Hoessle—who has traveled to all seven continents and can tell tales that captivate.
Favazza is part of a crew of adults, children and babies that filters in and out of the large rectangular table anchored by Hoessle, at Einsteins.
Nick Nicholson is one of them. He worked at the zoo. Hoessle hired him; now he is retired.
“I was Charlie’s major source for manure,” said Nicholson straight-faced, who worked in the zoo’s elephant house. Nicholson supplied Hoessle with fertilizer for his gardens.
“He has so many interests,” said Nicholson. One time, Nicholson said he mentioned his interest in bonsai, miniature trees originally grown in Japan.
“The next week, (Hoessle) came in with a bunch of small little juniper trees. They were naturally stunted, with thick trunks because they were cut by lawnmowers. He came in with tools and we had a bonsai lesson right in the elephant house,” Nicholson said, "on the lunch hour.”
Today Hoessle maintains seven different types of gardens at his southwest county residence, and plies friends with a castor bean plant for their annual competition: who can grow the tallest plant.
“I’ve been as busy (as when I worked), but it’s more casual now,” said Hoessle, who still attends most zoo events and is a Boy Scout Merit Badge counselor. “I’m really trying to slow down.”
Already immortalized with a bronze life-size statue at the zoo, Hoessle was named Citizen of the Year by the Crestwood-Sunset Hills Area Chamber of Commerce in March.