The following story appeared in the Park Labrea News and Beverly Press 70th Anniversary issue, published April 21. To view the entire issue, click here.
It’s only natural that the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens is a top destination for Angelenos and visitors from around the world.
Where else can you visit the grasslands and jungles of Africa, the remote Australian outback, the lush rainforests of Central and South America and the stunning tropics of Asia in one leisurely afternoon? Add a geographically diverse collection of more than 250 animal species, educational programs and special events, and it’s easy to see why more than 1.75 million people visit the Los Angeles Zoo each year.
Zoo director John Lewis said while he wants people to enjoy viewing the animals and walking through the gardens, he hopes they learn something new during their visit. Newcomer species like Tasmanian devils and an endangered herd of Grevy’s zebras are examples of how the zoo stays on the cutting edge. And no trip to the zoo is complete without seeing the elephants, giraffes, chimpanzees, gorillas – and of course, lions, tigers and bears.
“We have a lot of visitors who have never been up close to wild animals,” Lewis said. “It makes them feel good to see the animals and experience something they’ve never experienced.”
The zoo opened in 1966 in Griffith Park and remains one of the top facilities of its kind in the nation. Owned and operated by the city of Los Angeles, the 113-acre zoo is supported by a small army of staff and volunteers from the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA). More than 1,100 animals are on display, along with 800 different plant species.
A new program, the Hippo Encounter, allows small groups of 15 people, for a nominal fee, to stand next to the zoo’s baby Rosie and mom Mara, even touching their smooth hides. The popular experience is one of the most photographed at the Los Angeles Zoo.
Zoo officials are currently developing a master plan that will plot its course into the future. One of the newest attractions is a special dinosaur exhibit that runs through Oct. 31.
“There [are] animatronic dinosaurs, fossil digs and things for the kids, a lot of educational material. And throughout the experience, we’ll be trying to connect the dinosaurs with some of the animals that actually live here at the zoo,” Lewis said. “That is a fun thing for people to see and a reason to come back to the zoo.
Its permanent primate exhibit, the Chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains habitat, is home to one of the largest troops of chimps in the country; the Red Ape Rainforest allows visitors to walk among orangutans; and the Campo Gorilla Reserve is home to a thriving group of lowland gorillas. The Dragons of Komodo houses the world’s largest lizards. The ornate design of the Elephants of Asia section links its two inhabitants to the cultures of Thailand, India, Cambodia and China.
The LAIR (Living Amphibians, Invertebrates and Reptiles) boasts more than 70 creepy-crawly species. Many of its inhabitants are unique, such as Chinese giant salamanders, which resemble small logs as they float in the water. Others are highly venomous, such as the zoo’s collection of Armenian vipers, which recently multiplied under a breeding program.
Visitors can also travel to the jungles of Central and South America in the new Rainforest of the Americas habitat to see indigenous animals such as black howler monkeys, tapirs, jaguars and giant river otters. New stingrays were recently introduced to the tanks next to the otters’ swimming pool. Lewis said the zoo’s diversity of species living side-by-side makes the zoo special. Some species, like Calamian deer from the Philippines, can’t be seen anywhere else in the U.S.
“We have a fairly unique animal collection. We have a lot of hooved animals that a lot of zoos don’t work with. Some of that is because of our climate, but [mostly] it’s because of the professionals that work here. They have the expertise to work with those delicate species,” Lewis said. “In the LAIR, we’re working with a lot of reptile species in particular that very few other zoos are working with and our staff has not only been able to keep them but reproduce them. We’ve sent close to 50 komodo dragons around the world from offspring that were hatched here.”
The zoo is also a leader in conservation, working with the peninsular pronghorn antelopes in Baja California and the California condor populations, among others. While the condors are not on display, the zoo cares for them at an adjacent facility and has helped the birds rebound from the brink of extinction. Contributions that go directly to the preservation of endangered species are encouraged.
“In my opinion [the zoo is] for the people who [come here] and are going to make a difference in what happens to a species. Hopefully, it makes one receptive to what’s happening, makes them more informed and more apt to make a difference,” Lewis said.
GLAZA plays a major role in supporting the zoo’s work with endangered species, raising money through fundraisers and special programs. The annual “Beastly Ball,” where every June visitors walk the zoo after hours and sample gourmet food from top Los Angeles restaurants, is GLAZA’s biggest benefit of the year. The zoo also hosts special music nights, culinary and craft beer events and family festivals allowing visitors to see a different side of the zoo. All of the events are planned around the animals and include zookeeper talks and up-close animal encounters.
The Winnick Family Children’s Zoo is also perfect for families with young children, who can interact with small animals and explore a cave. The flamingos – one of the largest flocks in the world – are the technicolor moment of every visit to the Los Angeles Zoo. The Tom Mankiewicz Conservation Carousel, a merry-go-round featuring 60 handcrafted figures representing many of the animals at the zoo, is a one-of-a-kind attraction that is popular with families and children. The colorful carousel was named after the late Mankiewicz, a screenwriter, producer, GLAZA board chairman and staunch supporter of animal conservation.
Whether for events like the “Beastly Ball,” special programs like the Hippo Encounter or simply a family afternoon among the animals, the zoo continues to be a favorite destination where you can view a wide array of animal species big and small. And after all, where else can you travel around the world to more than a dozen exotic locales without leaving the city?