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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Manuel Mollinedo

Keeping the Prairie Dogs Dry, and Other Challenges to Retooling the Zoo

October 15, 2000|Molly Selvin | Molly Selvin is an editorial writer for The Times

In his previous jobs, Manuel A. Mollinedo talked mostly about sports. That's when he ran park programs in Los Angeles, San Diego and Austin, Texas. But walk with him now around the Los Angeles Zoo, where he is director, and Mollinedo will tell you, in detail, about the birth-control regimen for giraffes or the diet of a spider monkey baby.

At the helm of the zoo since 1995, Mollinedo still talks about his job with the gee-whiz enthusiasm of a preschooler face to face with an elephant. The 54-year-old Los Feliz resident is a quick study, a onetime athletic director who has mastered the arcana of the zoo's 1,200 animals. At the same time, his outsider status and gentle management style have enabled him to steady an institution that was listing toward chaos.

When Mollinedo took over, the Griffith Park landmark had become an embarrassment: Wild coyotes preyed upon flamingos, prairie dogs drowned in their holes and an elephant died in a preventable accident. Staff morale was in the tank, and the zoo risked the humiliation of losing its national accreditation.

To underscore its desire for improvement, the City Council cut the zoo loose from the Department of Recreation and Parks, where it had languished, and gave Mollinedo additional operating funds.

The result has been a remarkable turnaround for the zoo and plaudits to its director. Animal care has improved, notwithstanding last Wednesday's hourlong romp through the zoo by Evelyn, a 300-pound gorilla. Zoo attendance and private fund-raising are up, and Mollinedo has made headway on an ambitious renovation plan, opening new habitats for the chimpanzees and orangutans since 1998.

All this leaves Mollinedo little time to stroll through the park. But when he can steal a few moments, look for him by the wart hogs. "They're rather homely," he concedes, "but they're probably my favorites. I keep telling people, 'Somebody has to love them.' "

With the zoo on firmer footing, the East Los Angeles native, who is married, is planning a new challenge. An avid skier and runner, Mollinedo leaves next month to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Mollinedo was interviewed at the zoo.

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Question: Some animal-rights groups reject the very idea of zoos, believing that animals should not be kept in cages and put on display. Obviously, you don't agree. Why not?

Answer: I would love to see all these animals out in the wild . . . but when you've actually had the opportunity to see what's happening with the wholesale destruction of rhinoceroses in Africa, I would be surprised if within the next 100 years [there will be] any rhinos out in the wild. If you want to preserve these animals, you're going to have zoos partnering with people willing to set significant portions of property aside to maintain these animals. We have 31 California condors at the zoo. If we had the philosophy of leave those animals in the wild, they would now be extinct.

Q: How do zoos, in general, and the Los Angeles Zoo, in particular, compete with flashier entertainment options like amusement parks, television, video games and the like?

A: I don't really see us as being a recreational venue. I see us as being an educational venue. I would hope that when people visit our zoo, it's not to be entertained by the animals, but to learn more about the lives of these animals and the ecosystems they come from.

Q: The San Diego Zoo is the long shadow that casts itself over the zoo here. How do you define your mission, with San Diego just two hours away?

A: The major difference between the San Diego Zoo and the Los Angeles Zoo is really marketing and promotion. My marketing and promotion budget is $800,000 a year. The San Diego Zoo spends $5.9 million. San Diego spends over $1.5 million promoting itself in L.A. and Orange counties because these markets are very important to it. I don't see us competing with San Diego, statewide or nationally. I see our institution competing with San Diego in L.A. County. If I can convince the residents of L.A. County that our zoo is just as good as the San Diego Zoo, I've got 11 million people here. San Diego doesn't have that.

Q: How do you do that?

A: I've changed the focus of our educational programs. When I first got here, we were working primarily with Westside youngsters. We're still working with that segment of the community, but I really attempted to expand our programs to reach into the inner city. We presently have over 400,000 school kids come through this zoo a year. . . . We're taking our programs out to the schools and teaching children about conservation, about the animals that we have here, trying to develop a respect for the animals at the school level prior to them coming to the zoo so they can have a more meaningful experience. This last year, we visited probably about 80 schools.

Q: Cities of a certain size used to have an art museum, a concert hall and maybe a zoo. That isn't always so anymore. Why has that changed?

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