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The Los Ange­les Zoo is located in Grif­fith Park, in the heart of the U.S.’ second-​largest city, near Hol­ly­wood. The Zoo is also an accred­ited Botan­i­cal Gar­den fea­tur­ing lush veg­e­ta­tion and thou­sands of plants through­out the grounds. Besides beau­ti­ful scenery, its loca­tion in hilly Grif­fith Park also gives you some steep foot­paths to cover, though not as steep as at San Diego Zoo or SDZ Safari Park.

Before you actu­ally arrive at the main Zoo grounds, you walk along the ‘Sea Life Cliffs’ first which are located just after the entrance and where you find a salt­wa­ter habi­tat for sea lions fea­tur­ing under-​water view­ing. Pass­ing through between the Zoo admin­is­tra­tion build­ing and the children’s pet­ting zoo the next exhibit is the L.A.I.R. An inter­est­ing facil­ity for Liv­ing Amphib­ians, Inver­te­brates, and Rep­tiles, rep­re­sent­ing over 60 species, that was opened to the pub­lic in 2012 and pro­vides a vital base for the Zoo’s rep­tile and amphibian-​focused con­ser­va­tion ini­tia­tives. Both the indoor and out­door exhibits have habi­tats that exem­plify the nat­ural envi­ron­ments of the diverse inhab­i­tants. Inside it has got hand-​painted murals of damp and misty forests, rain­for­est canopies, red rock for­ma­tions, moun­tain ranges and vis­tas, and dry arid deserts. LAIR lizardsAfter walk­ing through the L.A.I.R. build­ing there’s a beau­ti­ful enclo­sure with lizards from the Amer­i­cas (mainly native California/​Baja Cal­i­for­nia): Cape rock lizard; Santa Catalina side-​blotched lizard; San Este­ban island chuckwalla;collared lizard; desert iguana and spiny lizard. A right turn brings you to the alli­ga­tor and croc­o­dile pond, which is a nice open air exhibit with for instance False ghar­ial (Tomis­toma schlegelii).

Next, is the Aus­trala­sia sec­tion. The lay­out of this sec­tion is cir­cu­lar, like many of the Zoo’s exhibit areas, with an enclo­sure in the mid­dle that com­prises yellow-​footed rock wal­laby and Sulawesi wrin­kled horn­bill (Aceros cas­sidix). This enclo­sure with much veg­e­ta­tion, has got wire mesh fence all around, a diam­e­ter of about 15m, and height of ca 20m. So, the horn­bills are able to fly around a bit. At the periph­ery enclo­sures hold yellow-​footed rock wal­laby, Visayan warty pig, double-​watted cas­sowary and koala. The two koala enclo­sures, both houses Tam­mar wal­laby as well. These pit-​like con­struc­tions con­tain large trees, though the koalas are pre­vented to ven­ture up very high, while their food is pro­vided under a roofed shel­ter. Included in the Aus­trala­sia cir­cle is an exhibit with two Komodo drag­ons (male and female?), each in its own enclo­sure. In between these indoor enclo­sures there’s access to an out­door exhibit, which will suit these rep­tiles large parts of the year con­sid­er­ing the Cal­i­forn­ian weather conditions.

LA Zoo typical circular layout of viewing area and exhibitsAs men­tioned above, a typ­i­cal exhibit lay­out in Los Ange­les Zoo com­prises a row of enclo­sures posi­tioned around a cir­cu­lar view­ing area with a small access path just off the main foot­path. Where the pub­lic is shielded from the sun by a roof over the view­ing area. Another typ­i­cal fea­ture at the Zoo is that the view on the ani­mals in their enclo­sure is almost always from above. You either walk on an ele­vated foot­path or the ani­mals are on dis­play in a pit.

While con­tin­u­ing I thought I entered the Africa sec­tion, but it appeared to be noth­ing of that kind. The group­ing of the ani­mal col­lec­tion is not by geo­graph­i­cal ori­gin, and not by taxon either, nor by habi­tat. I prob­a­bly do not do them jus­tice by say­ing that the species are spread over the grounds hap­haz­ardly, but I couldn’t fig­ure out what the plan behind the group­ing was. Or at least it was not exe­cuted con­sis­tently, except maybe for the Aus­trala­sia sec­tion I just had seen. For instance, the sec­tion in the cor­ner I thought would com­prise African species began with rock hyrax (South Africa), fol­lowed by African wild dog. Next, there were Cha­coan pec­ca­ries (South Amer­ica), Speke’s gazelle (Africa), babirusa or pig-​deer (Indone­sia), low­land anoa (Indone­sia), penin­su­lar prong­horn (North Amer­ica) and Grevy’s zebra in con­sec­u­tive enclo­sures along the outer edge of the cor­ner area. At the same time, in the cen­tre of this area North-​American river otter, bighorn sheep (North Amer­ica), bat-​eared fox (Africa) and island fox (Cal­i­forn­ian chan­nel islands) were on dis­play. You could argue that the outer edge exhibits all housed hoofed species, nonethe­less it doesn’t seem to be a spe­cific group­ing of their ani­mal col­lec­tion. Which is exactly what you’ll find through­out the rest of the Zoo.

LA Zoo African wild dog enclosureIn this sec­tion the African wild dog enclo­sure rep­re­sents a very green savan­nah with sev­eral trees and shrubs, and a stream that ends in the water-​filled moat near the vis­i­tors’ view­ing posi­tion. It is not a large enclo­sure, but it pro­vides good shel­ter from the inquis­i­tive pub­lic, because the dogs were hid­ing and rest­ing and I could hardly see them. Nearby, two North Amer­i­can river otters (Lon­tra Canaden­sis) are kept in an elon­gated enclo­sure of low height with wire mesh fences all around except for the cement rear wall. Although it con­sists for about fifty per­cent of water and the veg­e­ta­tion pro­vides sev­eral hid­ing places, I would say it lacks envi­ron­men­tal enrich­ment. Adja­cent there’s another enclo­sure, same style, with a small pool this time, lots of grass, veg­e­ta­tion and tree trunks, but it is not clear if this enclo­sure is also acces­si­ble for the otters.

The Zoo keeps many species in cap­tiv­ity, and con­tributes to many Species Sur­vival Pro­grams. This means they pro­vide active con­tri­bu­tion to ex-​situ con­ser­va­tion efforts of the zoo­log­i­cal com­mu­nity at large. But, regard­ing the wel­fare of their ani­mals I have my doubts, because of most of the species in the Zoo’s col­lec­tion they only hold few indi­vid­u­als. This is espe­cially sor­row­ful for species that live in herds or other forms of social groups, like many of the hoofed ani­mals. For instance at time of visit I saw three spec­i­mens of Speke’s gazelle, one sin­gle Grevy’s zebra, three giraffes, three Asian ele­phants and a few gerenuk. For­tu­nately, there are excep­tions. A herd of nine penin­su­lar prong­horns are kept in two desert-​like pad­docks across from the bighorn sheep on their huge arti­fi­cial rocky hill, an excel­lent mul­ti­level rock for­ma­tion. These exhibits, though small, seem fit for pur­pose for the small herds of the respec­tive species. But, as I already said, the next-​door Grevy’s zebra is on its own in the dry savan­nah area, that is to say I didn’t see any other zebra. Which is bad hus­bandry, because such a species should be kept in a social group – a herd. And it is bad for edu­ca­tional pur­poses as well.

From the zebra exhibit it is just a few steps to the Campo Gorilla Reserve that opened in late 2007 and is home to seven west­ern low­land goril­las. A forested foot­path leads to view­points where you are sep­a­rated from these majes­tic apes by either moats or thick glass view­ing win­dows. The Zoo has two sep­a­rate troops of goril­las – a fam­ily and a bach­e­lor group – liv­ing among the water­falls and lush plants. The enclo­sure of the two gorilla broth­ers is tem­porar­ily closed, but the fam­ily troop of five west­ern low­land goril­las, includ­ing a sil­ver­back, has access to a var­ied mul­ti­level enclo­sure with a small water­fall and stream, trees, shrubs, grassy bed­ding and an arti­fi­cial rock face all around. The goril­las are com­pletely at ease and do not pay any atten­tion to the pub­lic that some­times crowds together at the few view­ing points. The gorilla exhibit is off the main foot­path and cre­ates a secluded atmos­phere if it wasn’t for the huge num­ber of school­child­ren that visit the Zoo that day.

While the gorilla enclo­sure is built accord­ing the old but still appro­pri­ate bar-​less prin­ci­ple of Carl Hagen­beck and mim­ics the ani­mals’ native habi­tat, the adja­cent Bornean orang­utans exhibit is com­pletely the oppo­site. It doesn’t resem­ble the orang­utans’ native habi­tat in the Indone­sian rain­for­est and it has got wire mesh fences all around, includ­ing the roof. There are no trees what­so­ever, and due to the lack of shade and humid­ity that trees pro­vide, LA Zoo vaporizers at orangutan exhibitvapor­iz­ers have been installed next to the enclo­sure to increase the humid­ity in the direct envi­ron­ment of the apes. The envi­ron­ment is enriched with arti­fi­cial climb­ing facil­i­ties and the largest exhibit’s height is about 20 metres. One of the two out­door enclo­sures holds a mother and child, born in 2005. The orang­utans are quite exposed in their exhibit due to the wire mesh fences and win­dows, where the pub­lic walks along on an ele­vated boardwalk.

The Ele­phants of Asia’ exhibit, which was opened in 2010, can be regarded as the cen­tre­piece of the Zoo. Not only because it is the largest exhibit of the Zoo with over 2.5 hectares of land that show­cases the ele­phants and informs vis­i­tors about the chal­lenges Asian ele­phants face in the wild. But it is also phys­i­cally the cen­tre of the main grounds. Unfor­tu­nately, only 3 ele­phants were occu­py­ing the ter­ri­tory at time of visit. Three is a rather small num­ber for an ani­mal that tends to live in larger social groups, though social ties are weaker than in African elephants.

The first mixed species exhibit I encounter, except for the odd enclo­sures in the Aus­trala­sia sec­tion, is one which com­prises two moun­tain bongo and yellow-​backed duiker. It’s a rel­a­tively large enclo­sure, slightly uphill, sev­eral trees, and with sandy soil. I wish I could be as enthu­si­as­tic about the enclo­sure for the Maa­sai giraffe as well, but these are on dis­play in a pathetic enclo­sure with­out any decent enrich­ment (see video).

In this sec­tion sev­eral pri­mate species can be found. The Kikuyu colobus mon­key are kept in a cage-​like con­struc­tion which sup­port climb­ing activ­i­ties by arti­fi­cial enrich­ment. But there’s no pos­si­bil­ity to ven­ture up high in a tree as they would do in their native habitat.

Like this colobus mon­key enclo­sure I would call many of the pri­mate enclo­sure, cages. Although the cages are large with much veg­e­ta­tion and enrich­ment, they are not up to cur­rent stan­dards. Except for the chim­panzees, the goril­las and the orang­utans, the pri­mate exhibits are all rather low and have a wire mesh roof. Even the sia­mang, which should explore the envi­ron­ment at the canopy of the for­est, expe­ri­ence this barrier.

LA Zoo serval enclosureWell, talk­ing about low. The ser­val enclo­sure is amaz­ingly low, for a cat which nat­ural behav­iour on the African savan­nah con­sists of prey­ing on birds that some­times are even caught in flight. In addi­tion, the enclo­sure offers hardly any hid­ing place, but sev­eral high level plat­forms though.

I have seen quite some exhibits at Los Ange­les Zoo that could do with an upgrade to bring them up to cur­rent stan­dards, in my hon­est opin­ion. But this can­not be said of the chim­panzee exhibit (‘Chim­panzees of the Mahala moun­tains’), which is impres­sive and a pre­cious lit­tle gem. The rock face rear wall, the mul­ti­level boul­ders, the undu­lat­ing land­scape, the trees, the water­fall, and stream, all do remind of the chimps orig­i­nal habi­tat in Africa. Except for the bar-​less view­points of course. This beau­ti­ful enclo­sure is home to one of the largest troops of chim­panzees in the United States. LA Zoo chimps penthouseIn addi­tion, the chim­panzee area includes an exten­sive indoor sec­tion and a 140 square-​metre “pent­house” with fire hoses and plas­tic bar­rels for the chimps to climb on.

The two tigers on dis­play are of the Suma­tran sub­species accord­ing to the Zoo’s web­site. Unfor­tu­nately this is not men­tioned on the infor­ma­tion panel (see Sig­nage). It is a small enclo­sure that offers many enrich­ment fea­tures though. With unpro­tected trees as scratch­ing poles, and a water-​filled moat on the visitor’s side in the pit-​like enclo­sure. A sim­i­lar so-​so enclo­sure is the one for the snow leop­ard. Of course it is too small, as always for such a species that roam many kilo­me­tres per day to find prey. But the rocky ter­rain resem­bles its native habi­tat and the obser­va­tion plat­forms serve a pur­pose as well. Unfor­tu­nately, it is not an open-​top enclo­sure and the wire mesh roof is rather low. Tem­per­a­tures are very dif­fer­ent from the Himalayas of course, so there are shades to pro­vide shel­ter from the sun.

LA Zoo work in progressThe final phase of the Zoo’s mas­ter plan that was ini­ti­ated more than 10 years ago was still work in progress in 2013. The mas­ter plan should deliver zoo-​wide improve­ments, but con­sid­er­ing what I saw there’s still quite some work to do I believe. ‘The Rain­for­est of the Amer­i­cas’ was sched­uled to be opened in 2014, and it did so on 29 April. This exhibit hope­fully pro­vides bet­ter exhibits for the Cen­tral Amer­i­can species, while at the same time give more geo­graph­i­cal mean­ing to the Zoo’s ani­mal col­lec­tion. In 2013, the giant otter was on dis­play in a pit-​like enclo­sure with ridicu­lous small pools for this aquatic mam­mal, so, hope­fully the new enclo­sure is more fit for pur­pose. The same counts for the other species in ‘The Rain­for­est of the Amer­i­cas’ such as the tapir, the emer­ald tree boa, the harpy eagle and keel-​billed tou­can, goliath bird-​eating spi­ders and red bel­lied piranhas.

I sure hope that they will not stop refur­bish­ing after this last phase of the cur­rent mas­ter plan is accom­plished, because I am not that excited about what I have seen at Los Ange­les Zoo, that is prob­a­bly clear by now. Although things are improv­ing and there are sev­eral absolutely great exhibits to be admired, I think they should give higher pri­or­ity to the ani­mals’ needs and wel­fare. There­fore, I add a few more enclo­sures to my list of not so good exhibits, which I would like to see improved. They need to be men­tioned because they are sim­ply awful, not fit for pur­pose and a dis­grace in my opin­ion. These are, the Indian rhino enclo­sure, and the aviaries for Steller’s sea eagle and African fish eagle.

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.


about zoos and their mis­sion regard­ing breed­ing endan­gered species, nature con­ser­va­tion, bio­di­ver­sity and edu­ca­tion, which of course relates to the evo­lu­tion of species.
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