ADVENTURES AROUND THE CORNER: The Los Angeles Zoo offers a trove of educational and entertaining opportunities

This article was originally written for a community newspaper in La Cañada to spotlight some of that city’s L.A. Zoo connections.

Male California condor Topa Topa still makes his home at the L.A. Zoo, which was one of the founders of the California Condor Recovery Program. Photo by Jamie Pham

Did you know that, just nine miles away, there’s a world-class education and conservation institution that makes an enormously positive impact not just here in the community, but throughout California and around the world? It’s the Los Angeles Zoo, which is home to more than 250 animal species of which some 60 are endangered or critically endangered and welcomes 1.75 million visitors each year. With support from its nonprofit partner, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA), the L.A. Zoo works to inspire appreciation and understanding of the natural world, sustain wildlife, and protect natural habitats.

GLAZA President Connie Morgan came to the L.A. Zoo in 2002 from the world of the arts. “As human beings who have, during the centuries, worked hard to fashion the world to our needs, we have a responsibility to nurture, preserve, and enhance our natural world,” she observes. “Zoos are now places not only to view animals from around the globe, but also centers for the breeding and conservation of endangered species. They also have a responsibility to educate our children about wildlife and habitats, and the role that humans play in respecting and protecting them for future generations.”

La Cañada resident Connie Morgan has served as the president of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association since 2002. Photo by Jamie Pham
The Los Angeles Zoo offers valuable science educational experiences that supplement the curricula of many local schools. Photo by Jamie Pham

The longtime La Cañada resident points out that the L.A. Zoo offers an engaging range of activities and experiences that appeal to all. Guests can observe species from around the world that they might otherwise never see—many of which face significant challenges in their native environments. Educational opportunities are available for youngsters to explore with their families or independently and people of all ages are invited to enjoy specialized evening programming such as Roaring Nights and the enormously popular L.A. Zoo Lights—all of which support the Zoo’s conservation efforts. In addition to changing the outcome for threatened animal species and safeguarding the biodiversity of our planet, “coming to the Zoo is fun,” she adds.

“The best way to participate when living so close to the Zoo is to become a member and then to utilize the campus frequently,” Morgan continues. “There are daily keeper talks at exhibits, there are wonderful education classes, an outstanding student volunteer program and a summer Zoo Camp that generations of youngsters have enjoyed. We are keenly interested in helping to develop young people’s interest in biological sciences and in the possibility of their becoming future field biologists who will carry conservation forward.”

The Los Angeles Zoo has been a longtime supporter of the Peninsular Pronghorn Recovery Plan. Photo by Tad Motoyama
Gary Kaplan with Betty White and feathered friend. Los Angeles Zoo Photo

Fellow La Cañada resident Gary Kaplan’s introduction to the L.A. Zoo was when he and wife Linda became regular visitors with their three children. A native of Pennsylvania, Kaplan and his wife moved to California in 1978 when he was recruited by Crocker Bank (which eventually became absorbed by Wells Fargo) to be head of human resources. Seven years later, he founded the executive search firm Gary Kaplan & Associates. Though his professional life led him into the field of human resources, Kaplan’s commitment to education inspired his interest in the L.A. Zoo.

“The Zoo is an amazing place for children to get exposure to so many magnificent creatures and learn about wildlife,” he observes. “Our Zoo does a magnificent job in terms of the care and feeding of the animals that they are responsible for and all of it ties together ultimately to my concern about the loss of so many species over time and my desire for children and adults to be able to see them and for us to be able to protect them. To do what we can.

The Elephants of Asia exhibit was made possible thanks to donors like the Kaplan family. Photo by Jamie Pham
Three generations of Kaplans have enjoyed exploring the L.A. Zoo. Photo courtesy of Gary Kaplan

“The Zoo is an educational institution and I feel that there are huge numbers of children in the greater L.A. area who, were it not for the Zoo, will never have the opportunity to see these amazing creatures in person. So many kids living in the inner city will potentially not have the ability to afford to go on a safari to east Africa. That was a driving force for me. I really care a great deal about children.”

When the opportunity to help the Zoo grow and expand its mission presented itself, Kaplan signed on and served on the GLAZA Board of Directors from 1997 to 2012. For three years he also acted as chair for the GLAZA’s annual fundraising gala, the Beastly Ball. He and Linda are Safari Society donors and previously supported the Business Partners program. They also contributed to the Red Ape Rain Forest and Elephants of Asia exhibits.

“My tenure at the L.A. Zoo coincided with a lot of the wonderful work that was accomplished with California condors and the role that the Zoo played in preserving that species. It was exciting. That’s what drew me. My wife and I have made two recent trips to Africa where we’ve gone on safaris and I tell you that the exposure to the creatures of Africa was a totally life-altering experience. I really care about our Zoo’s role as an activist in terms of preserving species and also in providing this marvelous educational experience for children. All you have to do is show up at the Zoo on any week day and you can see the legions of school buses and the docents out there, taking the kids on tours. It just warms my heart. To me, the L.A. Zoo is a very special place.” Kaplan’s sentiments are echoed in the commitment that hundreds of volunteers and docents make to the L.A. Zoo.

Orangutans are one or many endangered species that are thriving at the Los Angeles Zoo while wild populations decline. Photo by Jamie Pham
Mountain yellow-legged frogs are a local endangered species that the L.A. Zoo is working to save from premature extinction. Photo by Jamie Pham

The L.A. Zoo’s laughing kookaburras have been settling in to a new home near Australia House thanks to Tuesday Docent, and La Cañada resident, Muriel Horacek, who underwrote the cost of the exhibit. Over the years, Horacek has participated in 35 Earthwatch conservation expeditions to different parts of the world, including four in Australia. She is particularly fond of kookaburras and used to enjoy watching them in their former exhibit space. This largest of the kingfisher family is famous for its chorus of laughter which, inspired the children’s song written by Marion Sinclair in 1934.

Horacek was inspired to fund the kookaburras’ new home when she learned that the Zoo still housed the species but in an off-exhibit area. “I thought it was a shame that they were not out where people could see them—especially school children,” she comments. “The school groups don’t always make it into the aviaries, and the birds are much easier to see here. It’s important for young people to see these interesting animals.”

“I hope that this will inspire others to sponsor a small exhibit area at the Zoo. One docent has already told me that she will talk to her husband about doing something like this in the future. I don’t care about the publicity for myself, but I want to set an example for my children and grandchildren. My passions are the L.A. Zoo and Earthwatch. I think these two organizations go hand-in-hand, since they’re both promoting saving animal species and educating the public about them. In addition to the 35 Earthwatch expeditions that I have participated in, I’ve also funded 37 expeditions for 14 family members—children, grandkids, and their spouses.”

Horacek, who has made her home in La Cañada since 1991 (and whose daughter, grandson, and two great-grandchildren also reside there), finds L.A. Zoo staff and volunteers to be exceptionally appreciative and compassionate. “I can’t tell you how many of both staff and volunteers have thanked me for the Kookaburra exhibit,” she comments. “And some Zoo visitors, too, after hearing my description of echidnas and koalas and then seeing my name on that plaque!”

Part of the process of joining the L.A. Zoo docent program is the completion of a six-month training course accredited by UCLA. It is a rigorous learning experience, but one that many, including Horacek, find invigorating. “Even though I had seen many of these animals in the wild,” she says, “After completing the docent class I knew their eating habits and personalities. I love sharing this knowledge with Zoo visitors from all over the country, and the world. During the past eight months I’ve chatted with folks from over 75 countries!”

Kookaburras are the largest member of the kingfisher family and favorites of La Cañada resident Muriel Horacek. Photo by Jamie Pham
Docent Muriel Horacek is an enthusiastic supporter of the Los Angeles Zoo and the EarthWatch program. Photo by Jamie Pham
L.A. Zoo Docent Penny Moynihan is a licensed pilot. Photo courtesy of Penny Moynihan

Since graduating with the 2003 L.A. Zoo docent class, La Cañada resident Penny Moynihan has pitched in with so many committees and assignments it’s hard to keep track: Special Needs Outreach, Animals & You, the Zoo World Patch Program, and leading school groups and VIP tours for GLAZA. She has served as Beastly Ball volunteer coordinator, on the Association of Zoo and Aquarium Docents (AZAD) 2012 conference as chairman of the Wildside Room committee, and is presently the Uniform Chair. She has been involved with docent training and is active with the mentoring committee—and she also knows her way around an engine as a trained auto mechanic—which is why she volunteers to help maintain the Zoo’s outreach vans. She couldn’t tell you what animal she likes most, as she loves them all.

Penny has lived in La Cañada Flintridge since March 26, 1977 when she and her husband moved into the house they built on Fairhurst Drive. In 1992, Penny retired after 25 years at IBM and nine at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. Prior to retiring, she and husband Phil earned their private pilot licenses, followed shortly with both earning an instrument flight certificate. The couple have flown their single-engine airplane all over North America—as far north as the Arctic Circle, as far south as Puerto Vallarta, and several times across the US to Vermont to visit family.

Her fellow docents and Zoo colleagues agree that Moynihan is truly a gem. Her positive attitude, professionalism, and work ethic are inspiring—not to mention her great stories.

“An important lesson one learns from many years of involvement with the L.A. Zoo is the realization of the interrelations, commonalities, drives, and similarities of all species,” Moynihan comments. “All of us, two-legged or four, whether we crawl or fly, are fellow travelers on this planet looking to achieve the same ends, working towards the same goals, trying to make a living and survive, trying to provide for our young. The more different we seem, the more alike we are.”

The L.A. Zoo’s mission is as much about improving the lives of people as it is about saving wildlife. Indeed, one truth that has emerged after decades of conservation efforts is that it takes community support to save endangered species. The Los Angeles Zoo connects communities to accomplish that end—from La Cañada to east Africa, the Australian Outback, the rainforests of Asia, and beyond.

Penny Moynihan graduated with the L.A. Zoo docent class of 2003. Photo courtesy of the Volunteer Resource Center