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. After 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.
As 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.
In 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, vaporizers 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.
Well, 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. In 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.
The 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.