IT’S ALL HAPPENING AT THE ZOO
LOS ANGELES ZOO
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA
LOCATED IN GRIFFITH Park, a four-thousand-acre stretch of land featuring two eighteen-hole golf courses, the Autry National Center, and the HOLLYWOOD sign, the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens is more of a run-down tourist attraction than a wildlife conservation facility.
Funded by fickle city budgets, the zoo resembles nothing more than a tired state fair. Garbage cans along its bleached concrete promenade spill over. It is not uncommon to catch the stench of heaped dung wafting from cages where ragged animals lie blank-eyed, fly-speckled, and motionless beneath the relentless California sun.
To the northeast of the entrance gate, the lion enclosure is ringed by a slime-coated concrete moat. Once—if you squinted, hard—it might have resembled a small scrap of the Serengeti. But these days, undermaintained, underfunded, and understaffed, it looks only like what it is: a concrete pen filled with packed dirt and bracketed by fake grass and plastic trees.
By 8:05 in the morning it is already hot in the seemingly empty enclosure. The only sound is a slight rustling as something dark and snakelike sways slowly back and forth through a tuft of the tall fake grass. The sound and motion stop. Then, fifty feet to the south, something big streaks out from behind a plywood boulder.
Head steady, pale yellow eyes gleaming, Mosa, the Los Angeles Zoo’s female lion, crosses the enclosure toward the movement in the grass with breathtaking speed. But instead of leaping into the grass, at the last fraction of a moment she flies into a tumble. Dust rises as she barrel-rolls around on her back and then up onto her paws.
Lying deep in the grass is Dominick, Mosa’s mate and the dominant male of the zoo’s two Transvaal lions, from southeast Africa. Older than Mosa, he shakes his regal reddish mane and gives her a cold stare. As has been the case more and more over the last few weeks, he is tense, watchful, in no mood for games. He blinks once, briefly, and goes back to flicking his tail through the high blades of grass.
Mosa glances at him, then toward the rear fence, at the big rubber exercise ball she was recently given by one of the keepers. Finally, ignoring the ball, she slowly leans forward to nuzzle Dominick’s mane, giving him an apologetic, deferential social lick as she passes.
Mosa cleans the dusty pads of her huge paws as the large cats lie together under the blaring-blue California sky. If there is an indication this morning of something being amiss, it is not in what the lions are doing, but in what they aren’t.
For lions as for other social mammals, vocalizations play a major role in communication. Lions make sounds to engage in sexual competition, to compete in territorial disputes, and to coordinate defense against predators.
Mosa and Dominick have become less and less vocal over the past two weeks. Now they are all but silent.
Both lions smell the keeper well before they hear him jingle the chain-link fence a hundred and fifty feet to their rear. As the human scent strikes their nostrils, the lions react in a way they never have before. They both stand. Their tails stiffen. Their ears cock forward as their fur bristles noticeably along their backs.
Like wolves, lions hunt and ambush in coordinated groups. The behavior the two display now shows their readiness for taking down prey.
Dominick moves out of the grass and into the clearing. Even for a male lion, he’s enormous—five hundred pounds, nearly nine feet long, and four and a half feet tall at the shoulder. The king of the jungle sniffs at the air and, catching the human scent again, moves toward it.
TERRENCE LARSON, THE assistant big-cat zookeeper, opens the outer chain-link door of the lion enclosure, swings its hook into a waiting eye to keep it open, and drags the red plastic feed bucket inside. The sinewy, middle-aged city worker swats at flies as he lugs in the lions’ breakfast, twenty-five pounds of shank bones and bloody cubes of beef.
A dozen steps in, at the end of the chest-high wire mesh keeper fence, Larson, a former studio lighting tech at Paramount, dumps the meat over the fence and retreats a few steps. The meat plops onto the dirt in a tumble of wet slaps. Beside the open outer fence, he flips the bucket over and sits on it. He knows he’s supposed to stand behind the tightly locked outer fence to watch the lions feed, but it’s July Fourth weekend and all the bosses are on vacation, so what’s the fuss?
Sitting in the enclosure with the lions in the morning before the zoo opens is the best part of Larson’s day. Tommy Rector, the young head of the big-cat department, likes the smaller, sprier, more affectionate cats, the jaguars and lynx, but Larson, ever since a life-altering trip to a Ringling Brothers circus at the age of seven, is a passionate lion man. There’s a reason this animal is a symbol of might, danger, and mystery, he thinks; a reason that all the famous strongmen—Samson, Hercules—had to wrestle these guys. Their power, their physical grace, and their otherworldly beauty still amaze him, even after fifteen years of working around them. Just as he did when he was working on films, Larson often tells friends he can’t believe he’s actually getting paid to do his job.