LOS ANGELES — Five years after nearly losing its accreditation, the Los Angeles Zoo underwent scrutiny from inspectors again last week — but this time animal keepers welcomed the attention as they showed off stunning improvements, including a new petting zoo and revamped ape exhibits.
Inspectors from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association toured the zoo Thursday and met with the public as part of a three-day evaluation to determine whether the 35-year-old animal park deserves renewal of its national accreditation.
Gaining the association's stamp of approval is crucial to the zoo's ability to participate in animal conservation programs with other nationally recognized zoos. It would also help the zoo overcome the tarnished image it took on in 1995 when the association threatened to pull its accreditation for numerous health and safety violations, including vermin-infested exhibits.
"Without accreditation, a zoo just can't function," said Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo, who was hired after the accreditation crisis and is largely credited with turning the zoo around.
"A zoo could operate without accreditation. But it would be very difficult to exchange animals with other zoos, which is important for maintaining genetic diversity in our animals," Mollinedo said. "It would also be almost impossible to receive grant funding."
For much of the early 1990s, the zoo suffered from poor management, internal power struggles, numerous health and safety violations spotted by federal and state inspectors, and obsolete — and in cases, vermin-infested — animal exhibits. The association postponed the zoo's accreditation renewal application in 1995, giving the facility one year to improve.
"We have come so far," said actress and animal conservationist Betty White Ludden, vice president of the Los Angeles Zoo Commission, the facility's policymaking body. "A big role was played by Manuel Mollinedo, who came in with an overview of what a zoo should be and forced us to raise our standards. We needed that sort of leadership to pull us together."
In 1996, the association issued the zoo a five-year accreditation, which expired Sept. 1. To renew its accreditation, the zoo must show progress made since 1996, especially on priorities named at that time, including completion of a new animal health center and other capital projects.
During the past five years, the zoo has won over public support with the approval of city and county bond measures totaling $70 million. Under Mollinedo's leadership, the zoo has successfully constructed an $10.5 million Animal Health and Conservation Center as well as two new animal exhibit projects — the Chimpanzees of Mahale Mountains exhibit that has chimps basking under a tropical waterfall and canopy, and a Red Ape Rain Forest that allows the zoo to breed endangered orangutans.
In August, the facility also opened the $3.4 million Winnick Family Children's Zoo — named after children's author, zoo commissioner and benefactor Karen Winnick — that allows youngsters to pet goats and other animals.
The improvements have wowed zoo visitors.
"The petting zoo is cool," said Michelle Mayer, a North Hollywood resident who took her 14-month-old daughter, Lauren, there Thursday.
"Everything is really nice and clean. It was worse before. It was a lot more messy. There was trash on the ground. But now everything looks well-kept and clean," she said.
Despite the string of successes, the zoo has had recent mishaps including an incident in June when an Indonesian Komodo dragon bit San Francisco Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein while he and his wife, actress Sharon Stone, were on a private tour.
Bronstein suffered a crushed toe and required surgeons to reattach several tendons.
William Foster, executive director of the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky who is heading the accreditation team visiting the zoo this week, said team members will inspect the Komodo dragon exhibit along with others to ensure the zoo is meeting national standards. It will also assess the facility's veterinary care, safety, security and finances.