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Zoo Struggles With Problem of Gorillas in the Midst of Visitors

Finances: The creatures are escaping their enclosure far too often. Officials seek to raise $7 million for a new habitat.


When it comes to great escapes, few places can match the Los Angeles Zoo's gorilla compound for frequency.

Gorillas have stood on each others' backs to scale exhibit walls and ripped metal doors off their hinges. One clambered over a wall and swatted a visitor's rear. Last summer, a gorilla jumped across a 12-foot moat. A few weeks later, another ran down one side of a moat and up the other and caught a vine someone had forgotten to trim, swinging to freedom.

Zoo Director Manuel A. Mollinedo can't blame the intelligent animals, natives of heavy forests, for trying to bust out. They spend their nights, he said, in "dark, dank" holding pens with leaking roofs, their days in log-and-boulder grottoes designed for bears.

"Every time a gorilla escapes, we raise the walls a little higher--and we're about to do it again," said Mollinedo, who inherited the gorilla problems when he took charge of the zoo five years ago. "We really need a better, more secure enclosure. It would make it a lot easier for me to sleep at night."

The U.S Department of Agriculture in November gave the zoo one year to secure its gorilla exhibits or face sanctions. Mollinedo has asked Mayor Richard Riordan to allocate $333,000 to raise the walls of two enclosures, replace doors on holding pens and surround exhibits with electric wire.

In the meantime, Jim, a 350-pound 12-year-old, has been restricted to a cage behind the exhibit he jumped out of last summer. Although gorillas need tightknit, clearly defined families, Jim has no troop to join because his pregnant mate, Cleo, died in November and he might fight with the others. Until the safety upgrades are installed sometime in the spring, Jim will live a solitary existence.

"It feels like no one is fighting for these smart, sensitive beings, like we've let them down," said keeper Jennifer Chatfield, who considers herself part of the zoo's troop of six western lowland gorillas. "We need a new exhibit. What we have now is horrible for them and shameful for us."

Nodding toward Jim, she added, "Sometimes when it's raining and there isn't a dry spot in their holding area, you have a crisis of faith; you wonder if all the good we're doing for them [with captive breeding programs] is actually hurting them."

The Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., the zoo's private support group, has been trying to raise $2 million more needed to begin construction of a $7-million gorilla habitat that will recreate a tropical African environment.

The goal of that exhibit is for visitors to observe natural gorilla behaviors amid towering forest canopies and thickets of bamboo cloaked in mist.

But interest among donors has been lackluster, and zoo officials cannot say when the endangered apes will be able to move into a habitat actually designed for their natural social and behavioral requirements.

"The mayor will give Manuel's request serious consideration," said Mayor Riordan's spokesman, Peter Hidalgo. "His objective is to make the Los Angeles Zoo a world-class facility, and that includes reviewing those areas that need attention."

The zoo, which nearly lost its accreditation in 1995 because of deplorable conditions, has rebounded under Mollinedo. Visitor counts are up, the facility has never been cleaner, and breeding programs are successful. The zoo is gearing up to spend $45 million in bond money on several ambitious projects scheduled to open in 2004, including a new reptile house, a new sea lion exhibit, a children's petting zoo and educational center, and a new main entrance.

Every penny of those funds, however, already is earmarked for projects, none of which involves ensuring that zoo gorillas are comfortable and safe. Mollinedo said he accepted responsibility for failing to include gorilla improvements in the bond measure narrative--which details how the money may be spent--but said he thought private donors would have raised the funds by now.

In any case, keeping a lid on the gorilla habitats is only one of many pressing concerns at the zoo.

The sea lions are housed in a fresh-water enclosure that Mollinedo described as "a stupid concrete swimming pool." To stave off eye infections, the marine mammals have been trained to eat fish stuffed with salt tablets, and to dip their heads into buckets of saltwater a few times each week.

The termite-ravaged reptile house is filled with leaking pipes, frayed electrical wires and hundreds of delicate, and potentially deadly, creatures literally growing out of their old-fashioned terrariums.

To adjust the temperature inside a tool room being used to house hibernating Mexican beaded lizards, keeper Ian Rechhio cracks open the door. "This is not the way to keep hibernating animals in the 21st century," he sighed.

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