Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo doesn't shy away from discussing the facilities' checkered past, but he'd rather talk about what's to come: exhibits for reptiles and sea lions and a new discovery center

One of the first things Manuel Mollinedo did after taking over at the Los Angeles Zoo in 1995 was fortify the perimeter fence. The problem? Coyotes were coming in from Griffith Park to feast on $2,000 flamingos, not to mention causing a stir among the other animals.

That was among a multitude of problems that resulted in the zoo being "tabled" given a one year deadline to make changes or else lose accreditation by the American Zoo & Aquarium Association.

Things are different now. The L.A. Zoo, much maligned for years as unattractive and substandard, has been undergoing a facelift. And although Mollinedo characterized the zoo's re-accreditation next spring as a "do or die" effort, he appeared confident to once again let the AZA into his house.

Mollinedo will speak freely about some of the zoo's past difficulties. He'll talk about the coyotes, the escaped gorilla, the drowning prairie dogs, the dying plants and the decrepit reptile house. But then he'll then segue into plans for a new reptile house to be completed in 2005 after the new Children's Discovery Center, the Zoo Plaza and the Pachyderm Forest. He wants to talk about the good stuff visitors will see, and a lofty goal of at least one new exhibit every year to year and a half.

New exhibits

Recent additions include the $6.5 million Red Ape Rain Forest, the Winnick Family Children's Zoo and, most recently, the $450,000 Dragons of Komodo exhibit, which was designed to resemble the lizards' natural habitat off the coast of Indonesia. (The Komodo exhibit got some unsolicited publicity in June when San Francisco Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein was bitten by one of the creatures in a private viewing arranged by his wife, actress Sharon Stone.)

Since Mollinedo has taken over, the Los Angeles Zoo has seen a steady rise in attendance. Last year, 1.5 million visitors walked through the bluish-green gates at the front entrance, 16 percent more than in 1995.

Zoo officials cite several factors that have contributed to the increase. Among them: better looking physical facilities and gardens, in-house renovations of existing exhibits, a better relationship with the media and, of course, new exhibits.

"Now we actually have something to promote," said Mollinedo during an interview at his office, just a short walk from the zoo's main entrance. "(Before) we spent all of our time doing damage control." And with plans for several new exhibits between now and February of 2005, as well as aggressive plans to pursue private donors and corporations, the zoo should have more to promote in the years to come.

Today the zoo gets roughly half its $13 million annual budget from gate receipts the rest comes from city subsidies. The majority of new projects are funded through bond measures passed in the '90s.

Before then, times were hard. In 1990, Warren D. Thomas, the director of 16 years, resigned amid a probe that included allegations of mishandling animals as well as misusing city money. He was replaced by Mark Goldstein, who resigned in February 1995, just one day after a report issued by the American Zoo & Aquarium Association found substandard habitats and sanitation problems. Seven months later, the newly appointed Mollinedo, then a veteran parks administrator who knew nothing about zoos, much less the accreditation process, was given a year to turn the zoo around or face losing grant money as well as the opportunity to trade animals with other institutions.

Plenty of plans

Mollinedo's office is littered with pictures of animals, books and tribal masks. Resting on the perimeter of his glass bookcase are plans for the zoo's gorilla exhibit, as well as plans for a new zoo plaza. Mollinedo noted that a Sea Lion exhibit would be placed towards the front entrance, a loud and lively first taste for visitors.

"Right now you have to travel a ways before you can see any animals," he said. "I'd like to have people come in and see animals right away."

Two months ago Mollinedo and his staff endured a three-day investigation for the purpose of being designated a botanical garden. Assuming the zoo is deemed worthy of the extra title, Mollinedo said he would like to see if he can't get the named changed from the Los Angeles Zoo to the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens.

"To professionals in this field (the name change) is very significant," said Mollinedo. "It helps to enhance our stature as a zoological association."

In between his day-to-day activities, Mollinedo spends much of his time traveling to exotic locales to scout environments for future exhibits, as well as meeting with governments to establish partnerships to get new animals to Los Angeles.

On a tour of the zoo's new veterinary facility an employee waved to Mollinedo. "I thought you were in Costa Rica," she said. Mollinedo mentioned that, in fact, he'd be leaving that weekend, but he had just returned from Australia.

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