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the skunks of los feliz
Monday we took advantage of the Labor Day holiday, ignored the blistering heat, and made the short journey down Los Feliz Boulevard to the L.A. Zoo. Construction has closed off huge chunks of exhibits, most notably the gorilla enclosure, but there were still plenty o' captive animals to ogle. The grounds of the zoo itself (which is more properly known as the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens) are actually quite nice, with shaded walkways that wind along the hills on the east side of Griffith Park.

We checked out Destination: Dinosaur, which was a pretty decent collection of animatronic dino's clicking and whirring away in a well air-conditioned recreation of a prehistoric rain forest setting. We chuckled at the antics of a kangaroo and her rambunctious joey. We gazed at a huge alligator and discussed (briefly) how quickly he could make a meal of us. We trudged along under the unblinking eye of the sun, pouring bottled water down our throats. We were having a good time.

And then we came to the chimpanzee enclosure, where a dejected looking troop of chimps sat on a rock while another set of primates sat on benches and pointed and stared. Now, here's where a nagging sense of guilt began to creep into the proceedings.

For the record, I think the perfect habitat for most animals can be described thusly: Unlimited food and a total absence of predators. The zebra, for instance, toils not, and neither does he spin, as long as he's got plenty of hay and doesn't have to worry about a lion creeping up on him while he ruminates. And where can this trouble-free existence play out? In a zoo. This goes for many of the animals at the zoo. Let's face it, most animals (and some people) aspire to nothing more than survival and reproduction, and the zoo provides them with that opportunity, not to mention better health care than many Americans.

But looking at those chimps, with their hunched shoulders and drooping heads, gave me the familiar feeling (which keeps me away from Sea World and it's trained cetaceans) that some creatures should not be held captive. I tell myself that chimps are endangered in the wild, that this captive population may one day be key to the survival of their species. And who knows what chimps really feel? Our tendency to anthropomorphize animals can muddy our thinking on the matter, and the question of just how aware our furry friends are is hotly debated, to say the least.

And yet, watching the body language of our close cousins, I can't help but produce my own interpretation of their emotional state. The downcast eyes, the bowed heads, the demoralized demeanor, all say to me that these chimps are not happy, that they resent being stared at, that they do want out of their captivity, even if they have only the dimmest conception of "freedom". Maybe chimps can't quite put their finger on what's bothering them in the abstract way a human can, but they seem to know what they like, and captivity ain't it.

I hate zoo's for that very reason. I get the sense that the chimps and the elephants know that their lives suck. We should just let all the animals loose in Griffith Park and let nature take its course.
Speaking as someone who both works (in the publications division) and volunteers (as a docent and animal handler) at the L.A. Zoo I greatly appreciate the balance of your post and the measured consideration you give the L.A. Zoo.

In stark contrast comes the thoughts of anonymous commenter who gratuitiously hates zoos for the prisons he/she thinks they are. As such it must be pointed out that the suggestion to "let all the animals loose" (and in Griffith Park, no less) to let nature take its course would be even crueler fate than he or she could darkly and so biasedly imagine life in captivity ever to be.

It is important to note that the majority of the more than 1,200 animals here at the Zoo — be it our elephants down to our blind cave fish — were born and raised in controlled environments entirely unfamiliar with life in the wild. To "set them free" whether so ridiculously in the immediate surroundings or even in their native habitats would be a death sentence... and one by slow starvation as well.

Your observations of our chimpanzees is understandable and thoughtful and shows you to be compassionate and caring. You might be interested to learn that the exhibit in which they now reside (completed in 1998) is a remarkable improvement over the stark old rock they previously called home. Interpreting their body language can be highly subjective. They might have "looked" miserable and its easy to think confinement is the cause. Then again, it could've just been the dreadful heat, or the inconsiderate guests who make stupid noises or throw things at them. The best I can do to ease your concerns is with the fact that our 16 chimpanzees are cared for by the best animal keepers and health care personnel in the business who do their best to keep our chimpanzees and all our animals enriched, engaged and invigorated.

Is the L.A. Zoo perfect? Of course not. As you could tell by the many construction projects we're a work in progress that's always striving to better provide an environment that's both educational and recreational and one that nurtures wildlife and enriches the human condition.

-Will Campbell
I have been to the LA Zoo a number of times and I have found it fantastic. I have not seen the new chimpanzee enclosure, but I plan to.
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