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L.A. Zoo Changing Its Stripes

New entrance is latest step in long-term project that includes more naturalistic exhibits.

October 30, 2002|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

The old entrance to the Los Angeles Zoo has disappeared behind a construction fence and visitors now buy their tickets near a zebra-striped tent in the parking lot.

The bridge linking the parking lot and the entrance will be torn down and visitors will use a new yellow-painted path instead.

A ceremony today marks the official start of construction on the zoo's new entrance, the next step in a long-term plan to modernize the Griffith Park facility that will result in naturalistic exhibits for its elephants, gorillas and other animals.

The ambitious building program is needed, said acting zoo director Ed Maruska, "to bring the zoo into the 21st century.... This is a major city, and it deserves a major, first-class zoo. L.A. is good zoo, but it's not a great zoo and it should be, and part of what makes a great zoo is cutting-edge exhibits.''

The 35-year-old zoo has come a long way since the mid-1990s when the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn. delayed its accreditation because of outmoded animal facilities and other ills.

Maruska, then head of the Cincinnati Zoo, was one of three experts brought in to evaluate the zoo and recommend improvements, including its administration, many of which have been made.

In recent years, the zoo has unveiled a new children's zoo; more natural-looking, animal-friendly exhibits for its chimps and orangutans; and a new veterinary health facility.

According to zoo planning and development director Bill Lukehart, the next step in the modernization plan is the nine-acre entrance complex. Airy, steel gates will lead into the complex, which will include a children's discovery center and Sea Lion Cliffs, a new saltwater exhibit for the zoo's five sea lions and three new harbor seals.

The entrance complex will cost about $26 million, much of it from city bond measures passed in 1998, and will open in mid-2004, Lukehart said.

Other new exhibits are to follow. In April 2003, ground will be broken for Pachyderm Forest, a landscaped exhibit with a deep pool for the elephants that will resemble a village in Thailand. It will also provide a new home for the zoo's hippos, including an area where, through a glass window, visitors can view the hippos swimming underwater.

At the same time, construction will begin on Campo Gorilla Reserve, a naturalistic home for the zoo's gorillas and guenons, a species of monkey.

Both the elephant and gorilla exhibits, due to open in late 2004, will cost about $20 million, he said.

Next, work will begin on the Rain Forest of the Americas and Reptile & Insect House, which are to open in mid-2005 at a combined cost of some $25 million.

"The design concept in all these exhibits is immersion," said Lukehart, explaining that visitors will experience sights, sounds and smells that suggest a distinctive environment appropriate to the animals on display.

The days are over, he said, when a zoo visitor looks down on a captive animal in a pit.

"The animals and the visitors are on equal footing," said Lukehart, who described the planned exhibits as respectful toward the animals.

Maruska, a consultant to the rain forest exhibit, agrees with that approach.

"I think we have a moral responsibility to the animals if we're going to confine them," he said "We ought to give them the best we can."

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