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the L.A. Zoo

Creating a Great Ape Exhibit with a more natural habitat is a first major step in an overhaul.

New leadership and an infusion of funds are beginning to revive the Griffith Park facility.

February 06, 1996|JANE SPILLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Will the Los Angeles Zoo recover from years of turmoil--including the threatened loss of its accreditation--to eventually become one of the greatest zoological parks in the world?

That prospect seemed more than unlikely a year ago after a review by the American Zoo Assn. called for urgent action to remedy poor management, dilapidated enclosures for animals and dangerous conditions for animal keepers.

But now major changes that may transform the zoo's tattered image are underway--fueled by new manage ment and an infusion of $23 million approved by voters--and the national group says things are improving.

If the zoo in Griffith Park "can change its governance structure, provide new state of the art exhibits . . . and build out it's master plan, the L.A. Zoo will become one of the greatest zoological parks in the world," a new inspection report from the national association concludes.

Under director Manuel Mollinedo, who took over last March, the animal collection is being reduced in order to have fewer species in larger exhibits. A sturdy perimeter fence was built to stop coyotes from preying on flamingos and the staff was reorganized. Extensive landscaping is underway, and the zoo is applying for status as a botanical garden.

The zoo also will break ground this summer on the Great Ape Forest, the first major area to be renovated under a master plan for bringing the facility up to the highest zoological standards.

Work will begin by remaking the current gunite-dominated chimpanzee compound into a state-of-the-art exhibit that more than doubles the chimps' space and provides deluxe living quarters.

Grass and deadfall logs will give the exhibit an environment more like what chimps find in the wild. Instead of the moats that keep many of the zoo's animals at a distance from visitors, some interaction with zoo patrons will be encouraged--among the activities proposed for the chimps will be a cord they can pull to shower the people watching them with a cool mist.

The design allows visitors to have up-close experiences with the chimps. In addition to the mist shower, a child will be able to climb into a log and come face to face--separated by glass--from a chimp in the other end of the log.

New exhibits for orangutans and gorillas will follow in successive years.

"The Great Ape Forest will be like a walk through a tropical rain forest," says Jon Coe, the lead designer. "It will begin with an African forest village of thatched huts surrounded by a stockade from which you can see gorillas. You've left L.A. and you're in Central Africa."

Visitors will come to a gap between two large rocks and find themselves in a hidden building, kind of a mini-museum, and on the other side of the glass will be the gorillas.

"Gorillas often like to be next to people," says Coe. "Where they're in a large space and you're in a small space looking through glass they'll come up and play with you. We will do some things to encourage that play."

Through another window, visitors will be able to look into the off-exhibit orangutan holding area, which features an ape "gymnasium" full of climbing structures. "Everybody wants to know what is behind the scenes," said Coe.

Continuing along, visitors will exit into an Asian rain forest with dense bamboo groves. The orangutans will be in tent-like structures held up by artificial trees 45 feet tall, surrounded by a canopy of real trees.

Then the chimpanzees will appear, lingering and foraging on a grassy hillside. They may be probing in a giant termite nest, using a stick for a tool as they do in the wild, or probing for insects in a tree.

"One of the main goals of the Great Ape Forest is to alert people to how beautiful these animals' natural homes are and how threatened they are with destruction," Coe says.

The new management is also upgrading the zoo's veterinary facilities and placing new emphasis on projects in species protection.

"Today a zoo attains status through what species breed for you and what conservation programs your zoo is known for, not just in the zoo but in the wilds," says Michael Wallace, curator of conservation and science at the L.A. Zoo.

Wallace directs the California condor breeding program at the zoo, which gets the major credit for bringing the giant birds back from the brink of extinction.

Despite that success and others, the Los Angeles Zoo, located in a corner of Griffith Park near the interchange of the Ventura and Golden State freeways, has been plagued with problems almost from the beginning.

"In 1966 we started with a brand new zoo that was obsolete," says Bob Barnes, the zoo's curator of mammals. "We have 25 or so of these gunite, moated exhibits, for example, and chimpanzees don't live on rock cliffs."

Years of low budgets and deferred maintenance added to the woes, and now the zoo is confronted with long lists of improvements required by the American Zoo Assn., which decides accreditation, and government agencies.

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