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A Night on the Wild Side

Families can camp at the L.A. Zoo, touring habitats and learning more about the animals.


The natives are restless. Anxious bearers clutch their loads. All are certain that an adventure awaits them, not on the plains of Kenya or on Himalayan cliff tops but on one of the few family camping experiences to be had within Los Angeles' city limits, through Sundown Safari.

For nearly 10 years, the popular zoo sleepover program has opened the Los Angeles Zoo for family camping overnights. You bring the backpacks, duffels, sleeping bags and tents, and the zoo provides a way to explore the after-hours domain of the animals housed there. Campers range in age from children in strollers to pre-teens and their accompanying mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and grandparents.

The program has it all over conventional camping; there's no need to forage for kindling, haul bags of briquettes or pick the crisp, black casing off overdone hot dogs.

Campers check in at the front gates and a tram takes them and their equipment to Play Park--a grass-covered base camp surrounded by trees--where families offload their gear and meet the camp staff.

The evenings are coordinated by one of the zoo's curators, and the talks and tours are led by docents.

On one recent evening, docent Margaret Tollner welcomed a group of nearly 150, gave a rundown of the evening's activities and explained campsite rules: Do not leave the campground or go anywhere unattended; flashlights aren't allowed; don't feed the animals.

Then Tollner switched to the topic the docents are passionate about: animal life.

Griffith Park, where the zoo is situated, has animal life of its own.

"Does anybody know what kinds of animals we might find in the park, outside of the zoo?" Tollner asked. Young campers shouted back: "Skunks!" "Bats!" "Raccoons!" "Coyotes!"

Tollner then explained that although campers might hear or, in the case of the skunk, smell these animals during the night, the camp is safe and secure.

One of the high points was a chance for campers to get close--even touch--some of the smallest zoo residents.

Docent Georgia Hill lifted a scaly skink, a member of the lizard family, from his box. Tollner pointed out a white peacock that was exploring the brush at the edges of the campground.

And assistant curator Kristin Evans held a huge hissing cockroach in her palm. It sat motionless until a tiny camper reached over to touch its shiny back; it hissed and more than a few campers jumped back.

While the children tossed questions to the docents and made the rounds from animal to animal, parents finished setting up camp.

Zoo Staff Cooks Meals

Most of the logistics are handled by zoo staffers, who set up communal areas, coordinate the spacing of tents and prepare meals and snacks.

This evening's dinner menu included chicken tenders prepared on the grill, accompanied by pesto pasta and salad, with a peanut butter and jelly option and fruit to top things off.

After dinner, participants were divided into small groups, each assigned a pair of docents who set off with their groups for tours.

Animal keepers met the groups at the various enclosures and escorted them behind the scenes for an up-close look at black bears, rhinoceroses, giraffes and orangutans in their indoor habitats.

Keeper Samantha Messer led one small group of campers through a utility entrance to one of the "bedrooms" of a pair of adolescent black bears, Ranger and Ashby.

Past the maintenance equipment and into a fairly narrow passage, campers squeezed in to get a look at one of the 250-pound teenagers.

Children and parents had questions: "Would he kill you if you got into his cage?" Messer popped a snack into Ranger's mouth and answered, "He could if he wanted to."

In addition to touring animal habitats, campers played games and did crafts; some took advantage of the "jungle gym" play structure next to the campground.

Just before lights out, campers sat around a fire and roasted marshmallows for s'mores--the venerable chocolate, marshmallow and graham cracker campfire confection--and listened to stories.

After an full evening of walking tours, games and outdoor activities, most campers were quite ready to head for their tents, crawl into their sleeping bags and listen to the apes--siamangs and gibbons--call out their goodnights.

Morning came early: Campers had the option of taking a walk through the zoo, followed by breakfast and a talk by one of the keepers.

The program officially ended at 9 a.m., but many families stowed their camping gear in their cars, then headed back into the zoo to spend the day--this time in front of the cages.

Groups Can Also Camp

Sundown Safari, aimed at family groups, is the centerpiece of the zoo's sleepover programs; a close relative is Zoopendous Nights.

The program allows organized groups of up to 100 individuals, including scouts, civic clubs, church youth groups or school classes to take part in a zoo sleepover program that generally follows the Safari itinerary.

Outdoor camping is available from April through October; indoor camping (no tents) is offered the rest of the year.


Zoo Sleepovers, Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, 5333 Zoo Drive, L.A., Sundown Safari: Oct. 19. Reservations required. Members 13 years and older, $65; ages 3-12 $45; under 3, free. Nonmembers, 13 years and older, $85; ages 3-12 $60; under 3, free. Zoopendous Nights: Dec. 13 and dates to be arranged. $30 per person. Call for reservations or for the 2003 camp night schedule. (323) 644-6400.

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