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STORY OF 40-YEAR-OLD L.A. ZOO IS WILD ONE.

Byline: DANA BARTHOLOMEW Staff Writer

GRIFFITH PARK -- Forty years ago, four elephants lumbered trunk to tail from the dilapidated Griffith Park Zoo to their home at the new Los Angeles Zoo.

Their milelong trek, taken by 2,200 other animals in every type of truck, ended decades of controversy over cramped quarters at Griffith Park. After years of lawsuits, the ``World Zoo'' opened Nov. 28, 1966.

``The public wanted a new and bigger zoo. They got it,'' said Los Angeles Zoo General Manager John Lewis, general manager of the zoo, which is hosting an anniversary celebration this weekend.

``With animal care and husbandry, we're a world-class zoo.''

Over the past four decades, the Los Angeles Zoo has grown from a sea of concrete into a habitat of 7,600 plants, re-creating natural environments for more than 1,000 animals.

The zoo has also been a key player in breeding such endangered species as the California condor and the Arabian oryx for reintroduction into the wild.

``By the 1960s, our little zoo ... was inadequate for a city our size,'' said Mike Eberts, author of ``Griffith Park: A Centennial History.'' ``The new zoo was inevitable for Los Angeles.''

The Griffith Park Zoo opened in 1912. But criticism of the 17-acre facility would grow to elephantine proportions.

``A mess,'' then-City Councilwoman Rosalind Wyman declared in 1954. ``Perhaps the worst zoo for any city of 100,000 population or (more).''

In 1958, voters approved an $8 million bond measure to build what one paper headlined ``The Biggest Zoo in the World,'' according to Eberts.

But exuberance soon became mired in years of litigation over whether a private agency or the city should run the zoo.

Organizers then bickered about where to build it: Griffith Park, Elysian Park or Jessup Park in Pacoima, the latter ultimately deemed too disruptive to animals because of planes from nearby Whiteman Airport.

Over the protests of golfers, the city homed in on Griffith Park, where they developed a 113-acre zoo on the original Roosevelt Golf Course.

On opening day, 80,000 Angelenos flocked to see such beasts as Ivan the Terrible, a vicious 900-pound polar bear that had killed three fellow bears.

A Theme Building rose like a 100-foot-tall witch's hat in the center of the zoo.

But while designers had done away with wrought-iron bars, they made full use of the cement mixer, erecting scores of cookie-cutter exhibits, moats and roundhouse displays.

``Oh man, all you saw was concrete,'' said Michael Dee, the zoo's general curator. ``All asphalt and concrete. There were few trees.''

Now, Dee traipses past palms that have grown 75 feet since he planted them during his first job at the zoo in 1967.

Past the Theme Building, whose top has been chopped because of rot.

Past Methusaleh the alligator, a denizen of the original zoo.

Past Bonnie the chimp, another original. Past Maggie the hippo yawning in her pool. Past monkeys in refurbished roundhouses and giraffes within moats turned into rock gardens.

``The biggest difference between then and now is now the city embraces the zoo,'' said Bob Barnes, the zoo's curator of records at the zoo, hired a year after it opened. ``For a long time, we were a stepchild, something to stick in the corner, not put money into.''

Together, Dee and Barnes saw the birth of paradise as the zoo assembled its acclaimed animal and botanical collection.

They saw paradise lost as the zoo almost lost its accreditation over poor management, health and safety violations and obsolete vermin-infested exhibits.

The era was symbolized by Hannibal, an elephant who died sedated and forced to kneel inside a crate bound for Mexico.

And they saw paradise regained as accreditation inspectors, mindful of sweeping zoo reforms, dubbed it ``the turnaround kid.''

Two bond measures funneled $110 million for new exhibits, from Chimpanzees of Mahale Mountains to Sea Lion Cliffs.

A sleek Animal Health and Conservation Center was built.

New exhibits are in the works for gorillas, elephants, reptiles and insects, as well as a rain forest habitat.

While 50 keepers watched over 2,600 animals in 1971, officials say 70 keepers now care for 1,070 animals. The zoo sees 1.5 million visitors a year.

``The strides that have been made in the last 10 years are incredible,'' Dee said. ``Making exhibits larger ... training animals without a food reward. Behavioral enrichment. We didn't have any of this in 1966.

``We got animals off of cement.''

Critics, however, say more is needed.

Gita, a 48-year-old Asian elephant that made the original trek from the Griffith Park Zoo, died last summer amid advocates' demands that zoo elephants be sent to a sanctuary.

Critics say that $40 million earmarked for a 3.6-acre pachyderm exhibit is too much money to be spent on too little space. Zoo officials call plans for the new exhibit above and beyond the industry standard.

``It's been very clear, from all the reports, that the treatment of elephants has been horrible,'' said Melya Kaplan, founder of Voice for the Animals. ``Elephants don't belong in zoos.''

Gretchen Wyler, retired head of the Humane Society of the United States, Hollywood, added that quarters for gorillas, giraffes and snow leopards are inadequate. She called for more interactive displays pertaining to L.A. Zoo animals.

``I just think it's sad we're not up to the times,'' said Wyler.

A mile from the zoo, joggers stream past darkened cages in the Old Zoo picnic area.

``It is interesting,'' said park custodian Rafael Perez. ``Sometimes you look into the cages and hear some really weird sounds -- mating, rrrrrhh, it's not people.

``It could be the life force is still there attached to all those exhibits.''

dana.bartholomew(at)dailynews.com

(818) 713-3730

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4 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) The bear exhibit is seen in 1966. The new gorilla exhibit is being built on this site.

L.A. Zoo

(2 -- 4) L.A. Zoo general curator Michael Dee, left, and curator Bob Barnes stand by the giraffe exhibit Nov. 2, above. Dee and Barnes worked at the old Griffith Park Zoo and have worked at the L.A. Zoo since it opened 40 years ago. Other long-timers include Maggie, a hippo, below left, and Bonnie, a chimp, both of the Griffith Park Zoo and 40-year residents of the L.A. Zoo.

Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 10, 2006
Words:1059
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