A Dicey Beginning
“Griffith Park is an ideal location for a zoological garden,” an editorial gushed in the July 1907 Los Angeles Times. The idea fit perfectly with Col. Griffith’s vision, when he created the park in 1896, that it be “a place of recreation and rest for the masses,” but Griffith Park Zoo (today, the “Old Zoo”) would not become a reality until 1912. There were a couple of zoos in Los Angeles around that time—the Eastlake Park Zoo (now Lincoln Park), and the private Selig Zoo, established by William Selig, who created the earliest and most successful film studio in the country, and brought animals from around the world for his “jungle” films.
In 1920, legendary Park Superintendent Frank Shearer told the Los Angeles Times, “Los Angeles can have one of the greatest zoos in the world and Griffith Park in my opinion is the place for it,” noted Mike Eberts in his Griffith Park: A Centennial History. Timing was ripe, and with the support of park and city officials, along with private stakeholders, financial backing seemed assured. Until, that is, it wasn’t.
The result was that the Griffith Park Zoo that opened in 1912 was constructed with a next-to-nothing budget from the L.A. City Council and was pretty much as basic as it gets. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for, and from day one the zoo was fraught with mishaps and missteps. Reports vary as to how many animals first populated the zoo—maybe as few as 15—and where they came from.
In 1885, Col. Griffith—ever the entrepreneur—formed a short-lived joint venture with Dr. Charles Sketchley, a naturalist from South Africa who had a successful ostrich farm near today’s Knott’s Berry Farm. There was money to be made from breeding (each bird worth about $400) and from the birds’ fashion-attracting plumage. Sketchley relocated his farm, which included assorted other animals, to Griffith’s Rancho Los Feliz. The public was intrigued by the tall long-necked birds and outsized eggs, and attendance was bolstered by a specially built, albeit tottery, railway that took visitors from the city to the Ostrich Farm. But the attraction closed in 1889 and Sketchley relocated the ostriches to Northern California, leaving other animals behind.
The original population of the Griffith Park Zoo was likely cobbled from Sketchley’s abandoned animals, along with animals “from the estate of railroad builder Frank Murphy who had kept his own private zoo,” writes Eberts. In any case, in 1913 the zoo’s population grew with the arrival of about 100 frail animals from the shuttered, scandal-ridden Eastlake Park Zoo.
On Shaky Ground
Griffith Park Zoo was located in a canyon near Bee Rock. Wolves, monkeys, bobcats, deer and others were housed in rudimentary cages and enclosures, the bears in hillside caves. Larger animals were confined in jerry-rigged corrals. In 1914, an aviary, bear pits and more cages were constructed. But small animals escaped fragile structures, and the slipshod facilities and restrictive quarters boded misfortunes to come. Eberts relates in his article “Two Zoos in Griffith Park,” that in 1916 sewage was found to be draining into the Los Angeles River, almost shutting the zoo; and that many cats died after being fed horse meat during WWI when the City Council, citing budget issues, withdrew authorization to provide beef.
By the mid-1920s, closure loomed when park management, and even Col. Griffith’s son Van, voiced displeasure. But the zoo struggled on, taking in more animals. In a 2012 Los Angeles Public Library article, librarian Christina Rice, wrote that animals from the Selig Zoo, having been shuttled from one place to another after its 1923 closing, were given to the Griffith Park Zoo.
In the mid-1930s, a glimmer of hope for a great world park emerged with a major years-long overhaul by the Works Progress Administration. But even this expensive venture—new bear caves alone cost $500,000—were not enough to reverse the zoo’s shaky future. For starters, moving the animals into their new digs didn’t go without misadventure. In Hadley Meares’ KCET article, “A Whimpering Roar,” she relates a series of fiascoes that included zoo superintendent Byron Gibson’s struggle getting two bears into their new space; Elsie finally succumbed to a squirt of cold water, and Alice caved to sugar and raisin bread. But Rufus, a 625-pound lion, wound up stuck in a deep moat overnight.
The ensuing years brought more grief and bad press. A baby zebra and young bear suffered broken necks. Bears escaped an enclosure during a severe 1935 flood. Fights between tortoises and other animals, which terrified other nearby animals and birds, were broken up by caretakers.
In April 1934, Topsy, a Bactrian camel and star attraction, died. California’s Madera Tribune headlined, “The Last American Camel.” Topsy was said to have been one of the last—if not the last—survivor of camel herds that once carried packs across the mountains of southeastern California. She appeared in Fox movies and with the Ringling Brothers Circus. After Topsy’s two humps were disfigured in a train accident, she was taken in by the Griffith Park Zoo to spend the remainder of her 80+ years in peace.
A bubble of hope for the beleaguered facility came during the Great Depression and WWII when, seeking solace in whatever entertainment they could find—and afford—the number of visitors rose significantly. But calamity followed calamity, and the specter of closure loomed—again.
Vision of a Great World Zoo Dashed
In July 1949, the Los Angeles Times reported that chief animal keeper Charles Allen, concerned for the animals’ well-being, called for a bigger zoo. Come the 1950s, the zoo’s population had grown to 1,000 animals, further straining the doddering facility and imperiling the animals in their overcrowded quarters. Their sorry plight did not escape visitors, and complaints from zoo and local officials and other zoos grew more strident. Tension among employees and rumors of animal mistreatment resulted in occasional fights among employees, and local papers wrote of clashes among some of the overly stressed animals.
In Eberts’ Centennial History he wrote of ongoing controversy and scandal,“…a horticulturist as director…trading trained animals for allegedly inferior stock…[and]animals donated to the zoo sold for private gain.” Despite all, the embattled zoo remained open into the early 1960s. But things were coming to a head. It was time that Los Angeles had a zoo that matched the city’s idea of itself as a budding great city of the world.
In 1958, voters supported $8 million dollar bond to fund a new zoo. This triggered several years of headline-making financial and political wrangling and contentious debate regarding the site and management of the new zoo. Finally, this chapter was over. The Griffith Park Zoo that had opened in 1912 officially closed five decades later, in August 1966. With its demise, Park Superintendent Frank Shearer’s long-ago notion of Los Angeles as home to “one of the greatest zoos in the world” was not to be.
Then, on December 6, 1966, just two miles from the strangely eerie remains of the Old Zoo that can be seen today, the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens opened with 2,000 animals…and another dream for a great zoo was born.
front page photo: Workmen building bear grotto, 1935
Griffith Park Historical Society (GPHS), Courtesy Paul Hernandez