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LES SCHOBERT, 1946 - 2008

Ex-general curator of the Los Angeles Zoo

October 22, 2008|Mary Rourke | Rourke is a Times staff writer.

Les Schobert, a former general curator of the Los Angeles Zoo who advocated more open space and less isolation for elephants, chimpanzees and other animals in captivity, has died. He was 61.

Schobert died Oct. 14 at his home in La Quinta, Calif., said Gretchen Kneeter, his longtime companion. The cause was lung cancer, she said.

Schobert worked in zoos for nearly 30 years and was an outspoken critic of some zoo practices. He wanted animals to live in spaces that came close to their natural habitat, rather than in tile or concrete cages. He also advocated community living for animals that are naturally inclined to form social groups.

"Les was a visionary," said Catherine Doyle of In Defense of Animals, a nonprofit animal welfare group. "He was not against animals living in captivity, but he had a mission, to improve living conditions for them."

Schobert's main interest was primates. As general curator of animals at the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro starting in 1978, he took an interest in the plight of a chimp named Ham, a minor celebrity among zoo animals. Ham had been launched into space by NASA in 1961, before any astronauts made the trip, and spent the next 17 years at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he led a solitary life.

Ham "had not seen another chimpanzee since he arrived in D.C.," Schobert said in a 2006 lecture to members of the Elephant Advocates Rally. He "knew nothing about being a real chimpanzee," Schobert said of Ham.

Schobert arranged to move Ham to the North Carolina zoo, where the chimps inhabited close to an acre of land. The loner was integrated into the group and lived with them until he died of a heart attack in 1983.

"Les was very proud of what he did for Ham," Doyle said.

Schobert also served as the chimpanzee studbook coordinator for North America while he was curator of the North Carolina zoo. Starting in 1989, he oversaw the project, which involved collecting genealogies, medical histories and other data on some 300 captive chimpanzees in the United States.

"I have a great deal of respect for his commitment to the chimpanzee as a species and his concern for individual animals," famed primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall said when Schobert began the study.

Although primates were his main interest, Schobert became increasingly knowledgeable about elephants through his career. In the late 1970s, he helped design a new elephant exhibit for the North Carolina zoo that spanned three acres and allowed the zoo's five elephants to roam freely.

Schobert moved to California to become the general curator of animals at the Los Angeles Zoo in 1993. The following year, the zoo completed renovation of the elephant barn, with heated floors for the elephants' tender feet and hydraulic gates to help keep the elephant keepers safe.

Last year, Schobert helped arrange for Ruby, a female African elephant at the L.A. Zoo, to be relocated to an animal sanctuary in Northern California. The elephant had spent months confined off-exhibit, alone, after the death of her companion elephant at the zoo.

Critics argued that the large, open exhibit spaces Schobert favored for primates, elephants and some other animals made it hard for zoo visitors to see them and for handlers to have quick access. "Les said, 'That's the trade-off,' " Doyle recalled.

Born Leslie David Schobert in Sacramento on Nov. 11, 1946, the son of a veterinarian, Schobert decided at a young age that he would work at a zoo.

He graduated from the University of South Florida in Tampa and was a curator of mammals at Busch Gardens, first in Florida and later in Houston, before he joined the staff of North Carolina Zoological Park in 1978.

After leaving the L.A. Zoo in 1996, he worked as a consultant to zoos and animal welfare organizations.

Schobert's two marriages ended in divorce. In addition to Kneeter, he is survived by two sons, Bryan of Florida and Grant of North Carolina; his father, Dr. Earl Schobert, and mother, Lora Oxley Schobert, both of Florida; a brother; and two grandchildren.

"Les was knowledgeable, fair and compassionate, and he had a great affection for elephants," Pat Derby, a founder of the Performing Animals Welfare Society, said of Schobert's concern for animals. "The elephants will miss him."

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mary.rourke@latimes.com

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