Tuesday, December 28, 2010

LA's Old Zoo Then and Now

Sunday, we were in the area of the old LA zoo in Griffith Park - the zoo I remember as a little kid.  With all it's horrible old cages.  Yet it was a place where this little kid could see lions and tigers and bears, up close, live.  And all those creatures fascinated me.  I was lucky my Dad was willing to take me there frequently.

OK, my older, more aware self has real issues with zoos - they can be seen as both places where great wild creatures are imprisoned in cages as entertainment for humans OR the place where rare species might be able to survive because their natural habitat has been wiped out by humans.  Either way it doesn't say much for humans.  But this post is about nostalgia.  About visiting the zoo I visited as a child.  I remember walking up the canyon and hearing the roar of the lions and the trumpeting of the elephants. 

The old zoo closed down in 1965 and the new LA zoo opened a couple of miles away.  But somehow some remnants of the old zoo have been preserved.  While this is nice for nostalgia, it also is a bit of history that shows people that zoos today are much nicer prisons than they were in the past. 

We walked up what turned out to be the back way.  I first refound the old zoo with my son about 35 years ago one grey, windy day.  It was a very spooky experience walking through this old zoo ground I'd been to many times as a child.

I found it again sometime in the last ten years with my wife.  So, since we were nearby Sunday, I thought I'd go by once more.

Here's part of a row of prison like cages that housed big cats and possibly some bears.  I remembered being here well, watching these amazing creatures.  So last night I asked my mom about old photo albums and she pointed me to one where I found this picture taken pretty close to this spot in 1951.

There I am (in the white shirt), with some family friends, at these very cages.  In those days there was a fence, then an inside walkway, and then the cage itself.  The outer fence is gone today, and the cage doors are open.

Here's the leopard's eye view of the people at the zoo.  This may just look like a picture to you, but to me it is amazing, to be able to get on the other side of the bars and look out.

Here's inside one of the cages.  Again, horribly small for the majestic animals that were imprisoned here.  

These were the more modern cages back then.  I remember bears being in cages like this.  There used to be a low wall on the outside and a moat - some with, some without water - between the people and the animals.  Again, walking back where the bears could hide when they got tired of being watched was an amazing experience.  

One of the not particularly well advertised spots where you can see Los Angeles history - and American zoo history.  I suspect that most places like this were simply torn down and built over.  Through some quirk of historical fate, these cages were preserved.  (I'm sure there is a story first of neglect, and then dedicated folks who worked to make sure these remnants were preserved.)  Probably not well advertised because it's part of a public park you can enter without buying a ticket.  It's in Griffith Park about two miles from the 'new' zoo. 

[UPDATE Dec. 20, 2015 - a somewhat related post on pet shops.]


  1. Wow. I've lived in southern CA all my life and never knew about this.

  2. I love how you find these gems of places to go see!

    When I was little, I saw a giraffe for the first time and started to cry. There was no room for him to lie down. The person there said that no one had ever done that and my parents were bewildered, but I was inconsolable. Giraffes don't belong in cages. The giraffe looked at me and I knew it was sad. Everyone was bothered by the three year old articulating this and I think I probably marred a few people's day with my observations.

    I saw an alligator in a cage but my momm worried about a crying spell, said to me, "Look how happy he is! He gets fed all day! And those turtles are his friends!" The gator was smiling at me and I knew he wanted to eat my fingers. I didn't feel sorry for him.

    Later I was in Munich and saw giraffes on an island that sat in a pond. It was a nicer place and the giraffe would probably die of old age and be pretty happy, more so than in the wild. When I saw the alligators there, I still wasn't worried about them.

  3. Did you ever go to Jungleland in Thousand Oaks?

  4. Thank you for this amazing LA memory. I grew up in Burbank but was born in 1964 so I don't think I ever went to this zoo. Believe it or not, I think I have only been to the other LA zoo about twice in all my years because I just hate to see the animals caged. I remember riding my horse in the hills near the old zoo and there were all kinds of great urban legends. Folks used to say the cages were haunted and also that, late at night, some sort of satanic cult had rituals there. Sometimes when I would ride by I could swear I heard chimps screaming! Ha ha. The power of suggestion. Anyways, it is great that they have preserved the old zoo for all to see. Next time I am down there I just might go over and take a look.

  5. Thanks for the various comments.

    Anon 10pm - the real test is whether your horse was spooked. The 'new' zoo is much better, but they do seem to have problems with elephants. It's clearly a dilemma, but the chance to see some of these animals live and close up is something most wouldn't otherwise have. And to the extent that knowing the magnificence of wild animals motivates people to help protect habitat, they can play a positive role.

    NSWFM, if you mean, by Jungleland, the place where they kept the animals used in the movies, yes, my Dad took me there once. Very cool. And clearly these animals had much more human-animal bonding.


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