Without Visitors Around, the Animals at the L.A. Zoo Are Living It Up

The L.A. Zoo has been off-limits to humans since March, but the 1,100 animals who call it home are wild about pandemic life

Consider the tamandua. A semiarboreal anteater native to South America, the gentle tamandua spends its hours and days foraging for bugs. Micah, a tamandua at the Los Angeles Zoo, is one of the park’s “ambassador animals,” so his typical day might also include roaming the zoo’s expansive grounds, conducting impromptu meet-and-greets with the hundreds of thousands of humans who make their way through the park every year. Today, however, thanks to the pandemic, Micah is roaming and foraging near the flamingo exhibit with nary a person in sight. Does he miss the crowds, I wonder? His keeper, Madison Quintanar, gently laughs at the question, before telling me that, well, Micah still gets to hang out with keepers and staffers, and given that tamanduas are really more interested in eating (“food motivated,” she calls it) than socializing, no, not really.

Over at the Campo Gorilla Reserve, it’s a different story. A group of keepers and I are watching a cluster of western lowland gorillas—mom, dad, and baby Angela, now seven months old, the zoo’s first gorilla baby in more than 20 years—in the park’s shady, tree-filled exhibit. They are, in turn, watching us. Intently. Ordinarily, these creatures are more aloof, but nowadays, when the keepers come by and have their lunches in a nearby section, the gorillas hang out by that section, too, watching and eating alongside. “I think they miss the people,” says Beth Schaefer, the zoo’s general curator. “If we walk through a public area now, they’re like, ’Hey, what are you doing here?’ They’re used to being around people. It’s almost like TV for them.”

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Tiny Angela is the zoo’s first gorilla baby in 20 years

The L.A. Zoo is one of the city’s most popular tourist spots, second only to Universal Studios Hollywood among the city’s top 20 paid attractions. Nearly two million people visit every year to see its menagerie of more than 1,100 animals and to stroll the grounds, which, at 133 acres, are larger than that of the world-renowned San Diego Zoo. And then the pandemic hit. For nearly every other major institution on L.A.’s top 20, the reaction was predictable (albeit heartrending): close the doors and send the staff home (Universal Studios, LACMA, the Getty); shut down the venue and tell the singers and artists to stay home (Hollywood Bowl, the Dolby Theatre, the Music Center). But what do you do with a zoo? It’s not like you can send Micah or Angela or any of the other hundreds of animals that call this place home, home. They already are. And then there’s the enormous support staff needed to maintain the grounds and exhibits and keep the animals alive and healthy and fed.

So the zoo is humming along, albeit without you and me. Stroll the winding pathways and you’ll see keepers and curators and veterinarians going about their usual routines. Behind closed doors, you’ll see others fulfilling the park’s mission of conservation, tending to some of the world’s most endangered animals. In an area closed to the public, there are California condors who will one day soar free across enormous stretches of the California countryside. In the zoo’s small Bio-Secure Amphibian Breeding Room (insiders call it the “frog shack”), there are scores of southern mountain yellow-legged frogs, among the state’s most critically endangered amphibians, which are soon due to be released into a remote region of the San Gabriel Mountains.

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Denise Verret, the L.A. Zoo’s first female African American director, wants to make it accessible to a new generation of kids

Ian Spanier

Last year, Denise Verret, an Altadena native who has been with the zoo since 2000, took over its leadership. Within months, COVID-19 rendered one of the park’s primary and most visible missions—amusing and entertaining its many human visitors—moot, at least for the time being. What’s the point of a zoo that nobody comes to? The murder of George Floyd and the subsequent civil unrest around Black Lives Matter made Verret, the first female African American director of a major American zoo, reevaluate the park’s mission.

“My one-year anniversary was on July 1, and I thought I was doing a pretty good job,” she says. “I knew what I wanted to do, and I had charted my course. But this pandemic and the cries of racism really forced me to think and reflect in ways I know I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for those two crises converging.” Wearing a bright orange mask emblazoned with a California condor on one side and the L.A. Zoo logo on the other, Verret talks about the challenge of explaining the zoo’s mission—and, indeed, relevance—to Angelenos living through these tough and bewildering times. With the park shuttered—it’s set to reopen on August 26 after 166 days—and many folks understandably concerned about things like police violence and school closures and whether they’ll even have a job come fall, one has to wonder: just what, and who, is a zoo for?

The L.A. Zoo shut its doors on March 13. In June, Governor Gavin Newsom gave the green light for zoos to reopen across the state—along with hotels, aquariums, museums, gyms, RV parks, and day camps. So that month a host of California zoos, from Fresno and Sacramento to Palm Desert and San Diego, reopened for business. Out of an abundance of caution, the L.A. Zoo did not (a decision that, given the resurgence of COVID-19 throughout the state since then, now seems well-considered).

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Prior to the pandemic, hundreds of visitors lined up outside the zoo every morning. Now the entrance is empty.

ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Unlike throwing open the doors to, say, a restaurant, reopening a zoo is more like reopening a small neighborhood, one with retail areas, restaurants, parks and play equipment, office buildings, public transportation, and live-performance areas—not to mention all those animals. According to Verret, the zoo was still implementing a range of changes in June to comply with extensive protocols established by the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, from timed ticketing and signage directing social distancing, to erecting additional physical barriers to protect vulnerable animals. On July 16, with COVID-19 rates spiking throughout the state, Mayor Eric Garcetti called for a range of businesses and activities, including zoos, to once again cease operations. The L.A. Zoo’s special relationship with the city, which owns the park and everything in it, has spared it from many of the woes that have devastated similar zoos across the country and world. “The L.A. Zoo is fortunate to have the financial support of the City of Los Angeles,” says Verret, “and we have taken the time we need to plan a safe reopening.”

It’s not the first time the park has shuttered—it closed in 2017 when a suspected bomb turned out to be a live opossum in a box and again the following year when a nearby brushfire scorched 30 acres of Griffith Park. But it’s certainly been the longest. The loss has been felt across the city by harried parents who miss having a safe and fun outdoor place to take (and, sometimes, dump) their kids as well as by lovers of botanical gardens who like some fauna with their flora. And then there are the animal lovers, who have been missing seeing some of the zoo’s newest arrivals. Babies are among the biggest attractions at zoos around the world. At the L.A. Zoo, there’s baby Angela, and a new (and, yes, adorable) litter of meerkat pups, now visible only through short videos posted on the zoo’s social-media platforms.

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Four meerkats were born during the pandemic

Ian Spanier

Like with every other department in the city, the L.A. Zoo had an emergency plan for pandemics at the ready when the coronavirus struck. Temperature checkpoints were established for all employees entering the zoo. Sixty other workers began telecommuting. Volunteers were told to stay home. Like the rest of us, the zoo struggled to find masks and gloves and hand sanitizer early on, but now it’s well-stocked. Because all city employees are required to be disaster service workers, 68 staffers in guest services—now no longer essential since all the guests are gone—have spent thousands of hours rendering aid to some of the city’s most vulnerable populations, delivering meals and providing care to L.A.’s elderly and homeless.

These changes aside, much of the work at the zoo has gone on as usual. At the nutrition center, the workers are wearing masks and gloves and cleaning the place a lot more, but otherwise the food is going out on schedule: ground pork butt for the lions; herring and capelin for the marine mammals; mice and rats and rabbits for the snakes, maned wolves, and big cats; sacks of primate chow for the monkeys and apes. And lots of fresh produce. “We spend about half a million dollars every year on produce,” says Emily Schwartz, the zoo’s first full-time nutritionist (“zootritionist,” in the parlance of the park). “And all of it is restaurant or supermarket grade. If we wouldn’t eat it, we’re not going to feed it to our animals.”

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Madison Quintanar, Keeper and Tamandua Micha

Ian Spanier

Over at the Gottlieb Animal Health and Conservation Center, the zoo’s hospital and wellness center, chief veterinarian Dominique Keller is overseeing the care of Cliff, a six-year-old orange and white guinea pig who is here to get his nails trimmed and vitals checked. Six is old for a guinea pig. “Geriatric medicine is this whole other burgeoning field in zoo medicine,” Keller says, “because animals are living so much longer because the care we give them is so much better than what it was.” Arthritis is a common problem here. “We have lots of ways to manage arthritis: We can do physical therapy and medications. We can do water treatment and laser therapy and acupuncture.”

The center is large enough to treat lions and tigers—“We had a camel right over there,” Keller says—and for the hippos and elephants, the vets make house calls. During the lockdown, the center has increased social distancing and the use of PPE and postponed nonessential exams. “It’s sort of like human hospitals—how they initially got rid of elective surgery because they needed capacity for ICU beds,” Keller says. “It’s not exactly the same, but we’re minimizing interactions with animals that don’t absolutely have to happen right now.”

With the human visitors gone, nearly every aspect of the zoo has become solely for the sake and safety of the animals. And while doctors and keepers care for the hundreds of critters within the zoo’s walls—from bears and hippos to salamanders and hissing cockroaches—they’re also doing so with the wider world in mind. In the frog shack, Ian Recchio tends to animals that will never go on exhibit because their more important purpose is to restock distressingly shrinking populations in the San Bernardino, San Jacinto, and San Gabriel Mountains. Recchio points to a small aquarium in the corner. “There are more southern mountain yellow-legged-frog tadpoles, or larvae, in this aquarium than exist in the wild right now.”

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Brids curator Mike Maxcy (in green shirt) makes the rounds with his California condor crew (from left) Chandra David, Mike Clark, and Debbie Sears

Ian Spanier

Conservation is also the main goal at the zoo’s California Condor West Facility. “Back in 1987, there were only 27 condors left on the planet,” says curator of birds Mike Maxcy. “And here we are in 2020 with 530. And most of those—300—are in the wild.” We stare at one of the zoo’s condors, Dolly, who is nonchalantly shredding a towel with her giant talons. Dolly broke her right wing when she was four months old, so she won’t ever be released. But about 90 percent of the others here will be, so the keepers have to be much more hands-off with them to prevent them from becoming tame. “They live in a zoo, but we can’t treat them like the rest of the zookeepers treat the other animals, where they form relationships with them and feed them and say hi to them every day,” says keeper Debbie Sears.

The California Condor Recovery Program is one of the most successful such programs in the state, and has served as a model for similar recovery efforts in other parts of the world. While these scavengers have cast-iron stomachs that allow them to effortlessly consume dead animals infected with everything from cholera to anthrax, it was lead from bullets lodged in their prey that almost did them in. Once nearly extinct, the enormous birds—the largest in North America—have made a miraculous comeback; last May, six of them were spotted at Sequoia National Park, the first such sighting in nearly half a century. Back at the L.A. Zoo, there’s been a bumper crop of eggs: 18, with seven that hatched. “We’ve been breeding condors for 33 years,” says Sears. “And this year we just happened to have the most eggs laid ever, by one.”

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Cliff, an elderly guinea pig, comes in to get his nails trimmed and vitals checked by chief veterinarian Dominique Keller (second from left).

Ian Spanier

Even when the zoo isn’t releasing animals into the wild, it’s promoting global conservation efforts in other ways: breeding critically endangered pronghorn antelopes, working to preserve Asian elephant populations in Cambodia, and providing funds to help save jaguars in Nicaragua and chimps in Cameroon. Schaefer is co-chair of an advisory group for the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where many of the animals they rescue are later released back into the wild. “One of the things that Beth and her team have been working on is trying to test different materials for anklets for GPS devices,” says Jake Owens, the zoo’s director of conservation. “We can do that here because the animals trust their keepers. That’s something you can only do at zoos.”

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Jean the chimpanzee

Ian Spanier

Thanks to its singular relationship to the city, the L.A. Zoo is, in many ways, thriving, at a time when other zoos across the country, from Oakland to Detroit to Cincinnati, are not. In July, the president and CEO of the Oakland Zoo said they’d likely have to shut the park down for good if they weren’t allowed to reopen in July (they did); in Detroit, where zoo officials laid off half their staff and were losing more than $2.5 million a month during the pandemic, the director raised the horrific specter of zoo animals starving to death on his watch. At many zoos across the country, breeding programs for endangered species like those at the L.A. Zoo have been put on hold. “Most zoos and conservation organizations are just stopping,” says Owens. “They don’t have funds. But the L.A. Zoo is pushing forward with green initiatives, sustainability, and conservation, and because of that the zoo community is looking at us to be a leader. They see that we’re still expanding while they’re retracting.”

In addition to assorted conservation initiatives, Verret hopes to focus on finding ways to bring people and communities of color into the zoo—and not just as weekend guests. The zoo is already doing well enough there, with people of color making up 57 percent of visitors. But Verret hopes to make the zoo a more inclusive place both inside the park and throughout the organization. “This pandemic and the issues of racial injustice have really given us an opportunity to listen and reflect and think about how we might be doing our work and focusing on our mission differently,” she says. “Because we want everybody to understand the importance of people and wildlife on this planet, and its interconnectedness, and that climate change and conserving wild animals shouldn’t be something that just white people care about. But that means we need to do a better job of educating and engaging and bringing people into that work.”

To that end, Verret recently announced the appointment of a new director of equity programs, Jessica Niven-Kohring, who will report directly to Verret. Niven-Kohring’s job will be to ensure that the park’s “internal culture and external programs are rooted in equity, belonging, and diversity,” says Verret. Among her first duties will be to help develop a new equity plan, which will lay out the creation of training programs and resource materials, and to look at the possible creation of an equity council made up of staff members.

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Kaloa, a muscular jaguar, is looking for love. So far he hasn’t found it.

Ian Spanier

And then there’s the zoo’s vision plan—a blueprint for an ambitious remodel that will affect nearly every aspect of the park, from its animal exhibit spaces and visitor centers to its veterinary facilities and tramways. Slated for completion in 2040, the overhaul will come at a total cost of nearly $800 million. In addition to a new islands-themed exhibit, home to wallabies and wombats, there will be a completely revamped Asia section. A new, 14-acre California area will greet visitors at the entrance of the park with grizzly-bear and mountain-lion habitats, a funicular, fountains, and winding paths that lead visitors past pools, meadows, and vineyards. There will be an aerial tram and a thatched-roof African Visitors Center, and the entire place will be greener and more ADA-accessible, with more space for both humans and animals. “The vision plan is going to completely reimagine this entire campus,” says Verret. “It’s going to be a space that really intertwines animal welfare, conservation, and connections between people and animals.”

As for the individual animals here, have their lives been changed at all by not having us humans around? I ask keeper after keeper, hoping that maybe at least a few of the beasts might miss us, just as many of us are missing them. But other than the gorillas, no, not all that much. Not Dolly, the vulture (“She’s generally very neutral to the public,” Sears admits), and certainly not the southern mountain yellow-legged tadpoles. Maybe Ozzie, the Anatolian Shepherd, who lives with the goat herd, chasing away stray coyotes and bobcats who might slip into the goats’ enclosure. As for Micah, the tamandua, I ask again, since he seems like an animal who would certainly miss people, given that he looks a lot like a dog (albeit a long-nosed one), particularly when he’s on a leash, as he is now. Quintanar, his keeper, can probably sense that I want to believe that Micah does miss people, so she allows that when the place does reopen and folks start pouring back in, Micah just might be the better for it. “Once we’re able to start doing events and seeing larger groups of people,” she says, “it will absolutely be more enriching for him.”

The L.A. Zoo plans to reopen to the public on August 26.

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