Longtime Zookeepers Look Back at 50 Years of the L.A. Zoo

The zoo entrance in 1968EXPAND
The zoo entrance in 1968
Courtesy of the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens

If you grew up in or around L.A., chances are that at one point or another you were herded onto a bus and taken on a field trip to the Los Angeles Zoo. Seeing the exotic animals might have made a frequent visitor of you — or maybe it was many years before you made a second visit.

Either way, things have changed a lot at the 133-acre plot in Griffith Park since it opened in its current location in 1966.

In recent years the zoo has invested heavily in state-of-the-art, naturalistic exhibits including LAIR (Living Amphibians, Invertebrates and Reptiles), Elephants of Asia, the Campo Gorilla Reserve and Rainforest of the Americas.

Last year nearly 1.8 million people visited, and in November the zoo celebrates its 50th birthday, which will be marked by the launch on Nov. 2 of an online microsite, zoolabrate50.org, for keepers, staff and visitors alike to upload pictures and share their memories of visits over the decades.

Veterinary technician Jeanette Tonnies first worked at the zoo as a volunteer in 1984. Raised in Wyoming, she said that she “didn’t even know zoos existed” when she came to Santa Clarita in 1978 hoping to work with disabled children.

Needing a job – and having some ranch experience – she started at the nearby Magic Mountain, which, like many other attractions in those days, had animals. There were country fair–style goats and sheep, but also elephants, camels, leopards and even a dolphin show.

Somewhat uneasy there, she says she “got compassionate. I wanted to do more,” and someone suggested the L.A. Zoo. Her first job was working with orangutans, and after eight years she traveled to Borneo to rescue baby orangs that were set for the pet trade in Taiwan.

Tonnies remembers the zoo’s exhibit spaces back then. Like most zoos, they were “cement and moat, with what they called cages at the back. Today, housing the animals and how we work with them has changed so much. The exhibits and holding areas are temperature-controlled, for example, and we look to give them more space.”

Visitors — or “guests,” as they’re called today — want different things, too.

“Back then people were looking for entertainment, and you could even feed the animals. I remember that once someone threw chewed bubble gum to the orangs; so much human bacteria!” Tonnies says.

Volunteers were hired just to, literally, “shovel shit,” Tonnies recalls, but there’s far more training for staff now. Even volunteer positions require a relevant background, maybe even a related degree — yet there are always floods of strong applications.

Several times Tonnies mentions her favorite animal, Randa the Indian rhino, and fingers the silver necklace she’s wearing — a gift made by one of the volunteers.

Hanging from it are three miniature hoof prints of animals that she’s operated on as part of the medical team: Randa (cancer of the horn), an orangutan (a pioneering eight-hour surgery on the neck pouch) and a giraffe.

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Nevertheless, she’s clear that while the keepers establish a trust with their charges, they don’t see them as pets: “We limit the time keepers go into the animal’s environment — it’s their territory — and only hand-rear babies if it’s absolutely vital.”

As the zoo’s veterinary tech, she administers anesthesia for the delicate task of surgery, something that, back when she started, often couldn’t happen; medical technology and animal physiology knowledge was limited, and it was just too dangerous to anesthetize something huge like an elephant.

“We’ve always done what we could, but today things are completely different,” Tonnies notes. “I’ve worked on a rhino, but also a frog that weighed .02 milligrams.”

The flamingo habitat in 1969EXPAND
The flamingo habitat in 1969
Courtesy of the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens

Preventative medicine is the name of the game today, but the idea of a nutritionist would have been unthinkable back in the era of MTV and shoulder pads. “Yet we have monkeys with diabetes, which means they can’t eat fruit,” Tonnies says.  

Also, the worldwide network of 232 Association of Zoos & Aquariums–accredited facilities shares information digitally, with extensive medical files and databases ensuring that every animal illness or injury is listed, and there’s a network ready to help at a moment’s notice.

“I’m really proud that we’re accredited,” says newly appointed curator of mammals Joshua Sisk, who manages the keepers and supervisors and started at L.A. Zoo as a volunteer in 2002. “The word 'zoo' can be used by a temporary county-fair zoo, but there is a difference.”

After time away at the Bronx Zoo in New York and the Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend, Indiana, he wanted to come back to what he calls “home.”

“Population sustainability and management is vital, so we look carefully at genetics and the conservation and care of the animals that are brought here and transferred to other zoos; it’s not just buying and selling the cutest or most popular," Sisk says. "We’re looking to develop future conservationists, and we send many of our keepers around the world to help with research projects, too.”

Sisk visited his local Kansas City Zoo regularly as a child, and when he recalls his first job at the L.A. Zoo he blushes as tears come to his eyes.

“I have a picture of me feeding a baby giraffe framed in my office,” he says, “and that was partly why I came back. The staff feels like a family. They all work long hours and never put in for overtime; they all buy supplies out of their own pocket; and many of them volunteer elsewhere, too. It’s just a pity that the zoo and animal rights activists can’t see more eye to eye sometimes; we both share a love for animals.”

Perhaps it’s time for another visit …

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Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens

5333 Zoo Dr.
Los Angeles, CA 90027

323-644-4200

www.lazoo.org


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