In the middle of Los Angeles, the ruins of a once-great cultural site sit in stony silence. Like so many other archaeological sites, this place tells a story. It was a gathering spot for the people of the era. It was a place for families, a place for children.
But unlike most ruins, these ones aren’t ancient.
They’re the remnants of the old Los Angeles Zoo, and they’re open free everyday for visitors to explore.
The History of the Old Los Angeles Zoo
The zoo was built by the city of Los Angeles and entertained residents and visitors alike during its 51 year run. But by the 1960′s, the zoo was obsolete. Zoological science had come a long way and naturalistic spaces that provided the animals room to roam were becoming the norm. Rather than renovate and expand at the current site, the Los Angeles Zoo decided to start all over again, abandoning the site for brand new facilities to the north.
Instead of demolishing the site of the old Los Angeles Zoo, the city kept it intact and repurposed it as a public park and picnic ground. Now, visitors can roam the grounds of the zoo for free and even dine in the former enclosures.
The Zoo Today
The zoo actually draws a decent crowd today considering it has no animals. A large grassy knoll surrounded by former enclosures anchors the zoo, and iswas abuzz with families, couples, and groups of friends enjoying the California sun. It is a popular picnic spot for visitors to Griffith Park, and while it looks like a great place to spread out a blanket, crack open the cooler, and unpack some sandwiches, I was there to explore.
The enclosures surrounding the picnic grounds actual look fairly modern – the faux rock decor wouldn’t look out of place in any modern zoo I’ve visited, though the space is a bit small.
A service road (that was likely closed off to visitors in the zoo’s former life) leads to the back side of these exhibits, and it is here that the differences between the old Los Angeles Zoo and modern zoos become more stark. It is in these small concrete cells that the animals spent their time out of the public eye.
An old chain link fence keeps visitors out of these portions of the exhibits. But in one section, there is an opening where some curious visitor had cut the chain link away from the fence posts, peeling it back to create a point of access to the enclosures within.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one wanting to see the animal quarters up close. The path through the hole in the fence was well trodden. Taking that as a sign, I slid through the opening and into the animal enclosure. 50 years ago, this would have been an incredibly foolish exercise as the enclosure likely contained an animal with teeth, claws, and strength all superior to my own.
Although it wasn’t being used for its intended purpose anymore, there was clearly plenty of activity in this small space. Graffiti marked the walls, broken glass littered the floor, and the room smelled of urine – though I don’t think it was from the animals that called it home 50 years ago.
As I sat staring into the now-vacant quarters, I couldn’t help but wonder what animal (or animals) spent their lives here. The zoo leaves no clues to indicate who its occupants were, but judging by the size of the hatch I had crawled through, they weren’t small.
These holding quarters represented the reality of the lives of the animals who lived here. Though I’m sure the enclosures were in much better condition in the 1960′s than they are today, they were still cramped and uncomfortable. It was this side of the zoo that further underscored why the move to the new site was necessary.
I crawled out of the enclosure and back through the hole in the fence, once again tasting sweet, sweet freedom and savoring the open space after being in such cramped quarters. After spending just a few minutes inside, it was obvious to see how far animal habitats have come.
Beyond this central core of the old Los Angeles Zoo, hiking paths wind out into other enclosures. A row of small, rusted cages sits with their doors unlocked, allowing the curious visitor inside.
A small wooden structure shows signs of neglect. Without regular maintenance, it has fallen on hard times. Chipping paint, missing beams, and an interior that has been completely destroyed by destructive visitors leaves no clues as to what its purpose was during the zoo’s heyday.
A New Life for the Old Los Angeles Zoo?
Recently, the zoo has also found a new life as a stand-in for other zoos in movies. With its close proximity to the major movie studios, the zoo has been a favorite for location scouts. Most famously, it was featured in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy for the scene at the bear pits.
The Old Los Angeles Zoo gives visitors a sense of what it’s like to be on the other side of the fence – inside the enclosures. It is a fascinating peek not only into the lives of the animals, but also the history behind how we as a society have kept and presented animals to the public.