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At the L.A. Zoo, the Animals Have Their Own DJ

Jason Cleanthes visiting with a rainforest friend.
Jason Cleanthes visiting with a rainforest friend.
Photo by Nanette Gonzales

Countless birds are squawking in the distance, as something scrabbles through the undergrowth. A small stream splashes by, the wind rustles the leaves, and an insect has just buzzed overhead.

No wonder the excited kids ignore the bearish guy with the close-cut goatee and khaki shorts. He looks like just another visitor, ready with his iPad to photograph something moving or slithering, but when he swipes his screen, it's as if lightning has struck. Suddenly there's no noise, no sound at all: Everything goes quiet, even (momentarily) the kids.

The man is Jason Cleanthes, and he's the AV technician at the Los Angeles Zoo. Grinning, he brings this zone of the Rainforest of the Americas exhibit instantly back to life in much the same way he originally silenced it — with a touch of the iPad.

As the de facto animal music supervisor, Cleanthes knows the power of a good soundtrack, and the importance to the zoo ecosystem of getting it right. He seeks advice from curators, architects and others as he carefully creates an authentic flora and fauna soundscape.

It's harder than you might imagine. You can't have sounds of the treetop canopy when you're looking at a land animal, for example. What insects would be found nearby? Do birds migrate there? What animals forage there? Is the animal's habitat deep jungle or open savannah?

Then there are the specific details of the exhibit environment to consider. In the Desert section, housing amphibians, invertebrates and reptiles, which is Cleanthes' favorite, the animals are behind 2-inch glass. You won't hear live sounds from them, yet you'll hear the rumbles of approaching thunder, followed by brief, heavy rain, plus insects, wind, birds and more.

Exhibits exposed to the open air have different acoustics, and of course non-animal sounds abound. Trucks brake, visitors shout, cameras click, phones bleep. Curators feel that, like humans, most zoo animals simply acclimatize to this white noise and tune it out, though they move or limit access to animals that seem unhappy.

"Above all, we want the animals to suffer as little stress as possible," says Cleanthes, 43.

Originally from New York, Cleanthes did a stint as an aviation electrician in the Navy straight out of high school and was bound for Los Angeles with plans to join the LAPD when he saw the L.A. riots on television. He decided on another stop: Las Vegas. "It was a total gypsy move," he says.

After a year or so working on the Strip — including some DJing — he "fell in and out of love" and decided it was time to "finish my path" in L.A. He worked security, then became a freelance reel-to-reel editor at a small postproduction house. He ended up an in-house editor at Buena Vista Home Entertainment before finally landing at LAPD after all; as a videographer, he produced training videos and filmed crime scenes.

But after six years, his unit moved. Facing a long commute, Cleanthes applied for the job at the L.A. Zoo. It was a new position and, despite having no background in animals or biology, he got hired — and found himself hooked. That was nine years ago.

The L.A. Zoo used minimal sound effects in some exhibits as early as 1985. But in recent decades, zoos have put a higher premium on creating better environments for animal and visitor alike, even as smaller, cheaper, digital technology allowed Cleanthes to pioneer what he called "ambient sound." That has put L.A. on the level with larger, privately funded zoos.

For one newer exhibit, Elephants of Asia, Cleanthes suggested the sounds of a marketplace in India. He designed the exhibit's sound system on a napkin, then got a lucky break.

"One of its elements is based around the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia, and we learned that someone was there doing field research, so we sent him a four-mic digital recorder and asked him to set it on a rock and leave it running, then send us the audio file and keep the recorder for his own work," he recalls. "All I had to do was edit out the sounds of his footsteps walking away, sweeten the volume in some places, and that was it. It was utterly live sound of the mountains, and exactly what the elephants would hear."

Generally, Cleanthes achieves authenticity by accessing sounds from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, or by contacting researchers and academic institutions. "If it exists in life, there's a sound for it somewhere — and I pride myself on that," he says.

He works closely with the curator of mammals, Jennie Becker, and curator of birds, Susie Kasielke. Sound, the women agree, is part of the "immersive" experience they want visitors to have, and an important aide-mémoire to the message they want visitors to take away: a continuing interest in wildlife and conservation.

They do have some non-negotiable rules, though. The sounds of predators can never be used. The same rule applies for an animal's own species: "We just can't be sure what the sounds might mean — danger, aggression or a mating call," Cleanthes says.

The zoo's proximity to Hollywood can be helpful. Cleanthes says, "Astound Studios in West L.A. gave us ridiculously reduced prices because the owner was a fan of the zoo, and liked what we'd done in Elephants [of Asia]. To be in an entirely soundproofed room, playing back from what looked like a 38-track sound file, mixing in psycho-acoustic sound" — or sound that feels as if it's moving — "was amazing." He adds, laughing, "There are no credits, though."

The resulting symphony is played via a sound card, plugged into racked amp "brains" in secure huts around the zoo. The 25- to 30-minute looped tracks feature seven layers of audio, with "hundreds and hundreds" of tracks on each — each ribbit, call, raindrop and flap, edited together on each file. It takes about two weeks to make one.

In some of the more elaborately designed areas, the sounds are started by a simple landscape timer, set to turn on an hour before opening so there's time to catch audio "burps" and the animals can get used to it. The tracks turn off an hour or so after the gates close, though it can be later if there are lectures, tours or events; keepers and staff use decibel meters and monitor the animals to make sure they aren't stressed.

Until plans to utilize sound in older exhibits come to fruition, Cleanthes and colleague David Keliher share daily tasks include filming, servicing display units, PowerPoint setups and more. At the zoo, even the daily grind has its special moments: The tiny cameras Cleanthes installed to unobtrusively monitor inaccessible or nocturnal animals revealed a bird wasn't feeding her chick as much as she should, alerting keepers to step in and help. They also learned that one of the Komodo dragons had unexpectedly laid — and then buried — her first clutch of 23 eggs.

"Even though I only played a little part, I go to bed at night knowing that I helped," Cleanthes says, suddenly getting emotional. "I was part of the team."



Email the author at jbartlett2000@gmail.com

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