Our Afternoon at the LA Zoo: Meh.

The kids and I are in Southern California for a week’s holiday + visit with my Dad. So far, even with a day of inclement weather and perhaps an average temp that’s about 15F cooler than we’d like, we’re having a good time with our rented condo by Strands Beach, just north of Dana Point Harbor. As is typical for a holiday, we haven’t planned things every single day, but we’re still out and about and the kids are reading, doing crafts, and we’re all playing lots of games (Yahtzee seems to be the big hit this time)…

LA Zoo Entrance
The Jurassic Park-like Entrance to the LA Zoo

Still, we aren’t always in SoCal so yesterday we decided we’d go up to Griffith Park and visit the LA Zoo. With some trepidation as all of us have that very modern sensibility of appreciating the chance to see the animals and also feeling sad that these majestic creatures are penned up, sometimes in dull steel cages not much bigger than a tiny Tokyo apartment.

When we got to the LA Zoo, our worst fears were realized as it was a pretty dismal place, though it’s clear that they’ve put lots of money into refurbs. It’s still got that old school zoo vibe, though, and for every enclosure that was expansive and had good informational signage, like the elephant enclosure, there was another like the dark, brooding spaces for the birds of prey, enclosures so small that they could barely spread their wings and definitely couldn’t soar and fly above their food.

Leopard Behind Bars
The poor leopard was stuck in an enclosure about 10% of the size it needed.

There was also a ton of construction, including a completely new aviary, so I hope that’ll help out with the bird enclosures, but I’ve been to small zoos that are well designed, animal friendly and highly engaging, like the little gem of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo tucked on a mountainside above Colorado Springs.

Turns out that the LA Zoo was originally a private zoo designed to pen up animals used on movies (think Tarzan). That being the case, I would imagine that they could tap into the LA Zeitgeist of movies and highlight which animals were in what films and TV series, have behind the scenes video displays, and really play off that heritage and the great entertainment machine that is greater Los Angeles. When you consider that the other side of the hill that the zoo’s on is where the Hollywood sign is located, it’s a natural. But nope, the LA Zoo’s just a disappointing, tired, vaguely depressing example of a zoo, one that’s a surprise in one of the greatest cities in the United States.

bored boy at zoo
90 minutes after entering the zoo, the kids were bored and ready to escape.

We were, in a word, disappointed. When we left — and the kids asked for us to leave early, without even seeing all the animals — our next stop was Downtown Disney for a cup of coffee and traffic breather. And that was so far the other extreme of managed public entertainment, it was amazing. No entrance fee, shops, but also performers and lots of good window shopping, all tied to a central theme and brand. And tons of people having fun. Yes it’s shopping, not ‘learning’ but I can only say that the trustees of the zoo really need to rethink what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, especially when the world-class San Diego Zoo is only a few hours drive away.

Or I can see the LA Zoo not being an option for visitors within a few years…

2 comments on “Our Afternoon at the LA Zoo: Meh.

  1. All I can say is you’re in the minority – we LOVE the Los Angeles Zoo. By the way, all that construction you complain of is to build a bigger habitat for the jaguar and other animals. These changes can’t happen overnight unfortunately. I guess the zoo could bring in clowns, and race cars and try to entertain your bored kids, but that’s not what the zoo is about. Kids take their cues from the parent, and if it’s not workin’ for you, it probably won’t for them. What a shame.

  2. Obviously the LA Zoo is doing construction to improve the experience. In the meantime, I will say that us adults enjoyed the zoo far more than my children did, and that we are savvy and experienced zoogoers, having been to a variety of them throughout the USA. Clearly our opinions vary, and that’s okay, glad to find enthusiastic supporters of the LA Zoo!

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