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FRIDAY REPORT / An in-depth look at people and policies
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Looking Up

The Los Angeles Zoo, once in danger of losing its accreditation, is adopting more-natural exhibits. Although many spaces still have a lot of concrete, activists cheer the progress that has been made.


Just three years ago the Los Angeles Zoo was wallowing like a hippo in the mud. Its exhibits were cramped and filthy, its veterinary hospital archaic. Attendance sagged and the staff squabbled. The then-29-year-old zoo looked like it might lose its accreditation.

Now, the zoo is lumbering out of the muck.

With millions of dollars from city and county bond measures, zoo officials are moving on an ambitious master plan that could bring the once-derided facility to the forefront of the nation's zoos.

"It's almost a 180-degree turnaround," said David Towne, director of Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo and former president of the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn. Towne was one of three directors to issue a blistering report on the L.A. Zoo in 1995, which prompted the zoo director to resign and city officials to move toward rectifying the situation.

The master plan "is very, very exciting," he said. "If it can be carried out, it will put the L.A. Zoo on the map."

The first new exhibit under the long-term, $300-million plan, Chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains, opened in August with much fanfare. Its one-acre parcel and natural setting exemplifies what cutting-edge zoos have been aiming to achieve for years: an environment in which the animals flourish and visitors get a deeper sense of how they live in the wild.

Though animal rights activists continue to condemn many of the traditional concrete enclosures that still dominate the landscape, many applaud the direction the zoo is taking. Renowned chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall, a bitter L.A. Zoo critic in the past, is now working with director Manuel Mollinedo to create conservation and educational programs at the facility. She loves the chimp exhibit, she said, and sees it as a hopeful sign for the future.

"There were one or two good chimpanzee exhibits [in the country]," she said. "This is up there with them."

She said the chimpanzees suffered mental distress in the old faux rock exhibit. Bored and agitated, they stared downward, fought and pulled out their hair.

Now, the chimps relax under a shady outcropping next to a waterfall on a grassy hill. They have plenty of space to move and no longer appear nervous.

"It's the type of thing we always wanted," said Michael Dee, now the zoo's general curator, who has been at the park since the beginning. "But there was never any money."

Dee said that although changes are in the works, most of the exhibits date to the zoo's founding in 1966.

Changing Standards

The nature of zoos has changed dramatically since then, when the L.A. Zoo was built on 120 acres of eucalyptus-shaded hills in Griffith Park. Even today, with its close proximity to three freeways, the quiet swaying of trees is broken only by children's chatter and the occasional shrill of exotic birds in the afternoon shadow of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Although it was lauded as a trend-setting zoological park when it opened and has attracted millions of visitors, the L.A. Zoo was poorly built, according to current zoo officials.

The drainage system often backs up because of design flaws. Exhibits followed the old menagerie style: a concrete island generally surrounded by a moat. Chest-high railings were all that kept visitors and their young children from falling into sometimes 30-foot-deep troughs. Animal waste often overwhelmed the zoo's substandard sewage treatment facility and flowed into the Los Angeles River. And the animal hospital was just a tiny portable building with no sterile room to conduct surgery.

As the zoo aged into the 1980s, officials did not keep up with trends toward bigger and more natural exhibits. The zoo's nonprofit fund-raising arm, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., was neither trusted by city officials nor bringing in sufficient donations, Towne said. And aside from a much-hailed condor breeding program, the zoo fell short in conservation education and promotion, a growing factor in maintaining accreditation.

"You can no longer be just a recreational facility and get away with it," said Terry Maple, director of Zoo Atlanta and president of the American Zoo Assn. "Zoos have begun to discover new opportunities to be bigger players in the conservation movement."

During the 1980s, federal agriculture investigators found the L.A. exhibits dirty and rodent-ridden. In the early 1990s, the zoo suffered an onslaught of bad publicity. In one incident, coyotes from the wild chaparral outside the perimeter broke through the fence and ate some pink flamingos. In another, an African bull elephant died after being sedated and placed in a crate for shipment. These and other events prompted several wealthy zoo association board members to leave, Mollinedo said.

"Visitors would ask, 'What did you kill today?' " Dee said.

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