Imagine a solitary path through dense jungle. A canopy of branches and leaves nearly blots out the sun. Giant ferns and exotic orchids rise from the damp earth into fog so thick it condenses and rolls off the skin. A parrot screeches. Then the trail opens into a clearing and, suddenly, you are not alone.
A family of orangutans caper along a fallen tree. Farther on, a half-dozen silver back gorillas stare down at their visitors from a grassy ridge. High atop the hill in a stand of palms, a chimpanzee is fashioning a branch into a lunchtime skewer.
In the jungles of Borneo or West Africa this scene might pass unrecorded day after day, for ages. But hard against the Golden State Freeway, at the Los Angeles Zoo, it could create quite a sensation.
That is the hope of the zoo's operators, who are prepared to bet at least $14.5 million that the African Great Ape Forest can help propel the outdated facility into the 21st Century.
The zoo's operators recently approved a five-year plan that would make the ape forest the first of half a dozen expansive new exhibits--verdant natural habitats that would blur the barriers between animals and humans. Preliminary plans are being drawn, and a daunting fund-raising goal has been set, to push the 28-year-old zoo into a movement of animal parks and aquariums worldwide that promise to balance visitor enjoyment with the goals of animal welfare, scientific research and species conservation.
"There is no reason the Los Angeles Zoo should not be one of the great zoos of the world," said Ed Maruska, executive director of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. "It has a very good collection, a great location with 200 acres that a lot of zoos would kill for and a good botanical collection."
Years of political inattention, deferred maintenance and bickering between management and employees have left the zoo rooted in its past--unable even to spend the bulk of $25 million from a 1992 property tax measure approved by voters for park projects countywide.
The latest catalyst for change came in February when Maruska and two other leading zoo directors issued an "action plan" for reform. Already, zoo Director Mark Goldstein has stepped down. A City Council committee authorized $8.5 million for maintenance over 18 months--six times what normally would be spent during that period. And a plan to ship out as many as 69 lone or poorly kept animals, representing 17 species, has been completed.
These actions address some of the zoo's immediate problems and are designed to help the facility pass an accreditation inspection by the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn. this spring.
But to sustain momentum, zoo managers, Mayor Richard Riordan and City Council President John Ferraro agree that they must press ahead with big new attractions--animal exhibits that will capture the public's imagination and help jump-start sagging corporate donations and attendance, which has dropped 25% in five years. The plans have received approval from the city's Recreation and Parks Commission.
For inspiration, the zoo's operators need only look around the nation, where zoos are creating charisma and crowd appeal in unlikely ways. In Cincinnati, Insect World has wowed the public and increased attendance 12% in a year with such marquee players as the inch-long, poisonous bullet ant. In Toledo, the Hippoquarium offers a novel sub-surface view of the world's most incongruous amphibians, part of an African savanna that spurred a 22% jump at the gate and a near doubling of zoo memberships.
In New Orleans, the opening of a new exhibit virtually every year--from the six-acre Louisiana Swamp more than a decade ago through Butterfly Pavilion last month--helped turn the Audubon Zoo from one of the nation's worst to one of its best. And Zoo Atlanta established itself as a top zoo, and a potential model for Los Angeles, with a rain forest gorilla habitat that is acclaimed as state of the art.
Where those exhibits might once have existed in a vacuum, they are now always tied to lessons about the environment or to direct support of conservation. Schoolchildren working with the Ft. Wayne, Ind., zoo have created a fund to preserve primate habitats in Indonesia. And zoos have become centers for new technology. The Bronx Zoo developed a satellite telemetry device that is being used to help protect elephants by tracking their movements in thickly forested Central Africa.
Even without such specific dividends, zoo leaders tout the political value of human and animal contact.
"Zoos are the only chance for most people to see a living, wild animal. That is an extremely powerful thing," said Michael Hutchins, director of conservation and science for the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn. "It grabs peoples' attention and gets them to care about issues like conservation."