Griffith Park: Home of Beleagured Zoos

Two Zoos in Griffith Park

The old Griffith Park zoo was small, simple and quaint ... which
made it a poor match for a Los Angeles bent upon becoming
bigger, better and more sophisticated.

Photo: Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks

Griffith Park has been home to the Los Angeles Zoo for over 80 years. The zoo's history is strangely star-crossed. The bright moments usually fade quickly from public memory while the hard times seem to cloud its reputation like a brooding inversion layer.

Controversy and dissatisfaction surrounding the zoo in Griffith Park is nothing new. In fact, there was plenty of it before the current zoo was built.

Humble Beginnings

The Los Angeles Zoo came to Griffith Park in 1913. The city moved its small animal collection from Eastlake (now Lincoln) Park to a ravine near where the Merry-Go-Round sits today. The Los Angeles Examiner hoped that Griffith Park's more natural setting would result in "healthier and more attractive" zoo animals.

The new zoo got off to a sputtering start. The plan was to raise $10,000--and that would be only a beginning. But the fundraising effort stalled. The zoo had to be built for $2,000.

Even back then, you couldn't build much of a zoo for $2,000. For one thing, it didn't have cages. It had stockades. Welded wire encircled groups of trees. Various livestock, wolves, monkeys and even some cats were stockaded.

Within a few years an aviary, bear pits and assorted cages were built by unemployed men.

Brushes with Closure

The little zoo had its health crises. Several lions had to be destroyed after a veterinarian with the Health Department (the zoo didn't have a vet of its own) diagnosed them as having glanders, a highly contagious disease.

In February 1916 the zoo was almost closed for good after the Health Department found that its sewage was draining into the Los Angeles River.

During World War I the City Council withdrew authorization to feed beef to the zoo's meat-eating animals. Suddenly unable to properly feed these animals, the Park Department tried to sell them, but found no takers. Turning them loose was out of the question.

The animals stayed at the Griffith Park Zoo. Horse meat was substituted for beef. Results were disastrous--1many of the meat-eating animals, and almost all of the cats, died.

Things didn't get much better after the war. By 1923 the city park commissioners were calling attention to the zoo's dilapidated condition. The Los Angeles Times predicted that the board would soon close the zoo and dispose of the animals.

Zoo Bashing

The Griffith Park Zoo chugged on, though. In the mid-1930s it was renovated and expanded as a Works Progress Administration project. Although it drew big crowds (free admission helped), the WPA-renovated zoo drew heavy criticism from the start.

Landscape Architect Ralph D. Cornell panned the zoo in Griffith Park's 1939 Master Plan, recommending that "it either should be abandoned or moved to a more congenial setting."

By the 1950s, zoo-bashing had become a good way to win votes, pick up consultant fees and sell newspapers. In 1954, Councilwoman Rosalind Wyman called the zoo "a mess . . . perhaps the worst zoo for any city of 100,000 population or (more)."

Belle Benchley, executive secretary of the Zoological Society of San Diego, concluded: "Frankly, there is so much wrong with the Los Angeles Zoo--fundamentally wrong, I mean--that it could not become a real zoo, or even a (much) better zoo."

The Los Angeles Daily News called the zoo in Griffith Park an "inadequate, ugly, poorly designed and under-financed collection of beat-up cages."

Apparently, the voters agreed. In May 1958 local voters overwhelmingly approved an $8 million bond issue to build a new "World Zoo." Expectations were high. One newspaper headline predicted that Los Angeles would soon have "The Biggest Zoo in the World."

The future looked bright . . . for a couple of months.

The Struggle for a New and Better Zoo

Heavy fighting broke out over who should run the World Zoo. A majority on the City Council initially wanted to turn it over to a group of prominent citizens called Friends of the Zoo. The Friends proposed to run it as a private nonprofit organization along the lines of the San Diego Zoo.

But others saw little benefit in building a multimillion-dollar facility with taxpayer indebtedness on public park land, turning it over to a private group and having the public pay admission for an attraction that had always been free. They argued in favor of a city-run facility.

The political and legal battle for control of the World Zoo quickly spawned a media circus. Television news anchorman George Putnam testified before the City Council (he opposed the Friends) and showed footage of the testimony to viewers. Roy Rogers proposed running the zoo as a wild west park and selling sponsorship to a television network.

Even the new zoo's location was mired in controversy and confusion. Elysian Park was the front-runner for awhile. Then it looked like the zoo would be built on county-owned land in Pacoima.

Finally, the site was decided: the Roosevelt Golf Course at the northeast end of Griffith Park. Golfers were irate. The Recreation and Parks Commission placated the angry golfers--somewhat--by building them a replacement course in Vermont Canyon near the Greek Theatre.

The ground-breaking ceremony for what would become the city-run Greater Los Angeles Zoo was held on a fall day in 1964.

It rained.

Writer's note: This article, one of an occasional series, is part of the Griffith Park History Project, an attempt to chronicle the park's long and remarkable life.

What memories do you have of Griffith Park? Suggestions? Questions? Criticisms?

Please call me at Glendale College 240-1000, Ext. 5352 (I have voice mail, so you can leave a message at any time.)

Write to me, Mike Eberts, Griffith Park History Project, Glendale Community College, 1500 N. Verdugo Road, Glendale, CA 91208.

E-mail me at

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