The Ark in Griffith Park: A Conversation with Michael Dee, Retired General Curator at the Los Angele

Michael Dee’s career at the Los Angeles Zoo spanned from its first year in 1967 when it was almost all concrete to 2008 when it was in the middle of completing a master plan to revitalize the zoo. He worked as curator of mammals for many years before becoming general curator in 1998. Few individuals have cared for such a variety of rare mammals as Dee. Among the rarities he has worked with include four out of five species of rhino, every species of tapir, giant pandas, koalas, California condors, hirolas, Arabian oryx, giant eland and drills. “I went on a group tour with Rick Barongi to Brazil and every time we would see an animal I’d say I had worked with it,” Dee said proudly. “By the end of the trip Rick said, 'what haven’t you worked with?'” Dee obtained immense knowledge about all the mammals at the zoo and worked hard to improve their care even at times when the zoo hit rough patches.

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“The new zoo had only been open 10 months when I started and they still had animals at the old Griffith park zoo,” Dee recalled. “Most of the animals were already at the new zoo but at the old one we still had some things like antelope, birds and a Clydesdale horse. We had an old polar bear at the old zoo because they had brought in two orphaned polar bear cubs into the new exhibit.” He recalled that not everyone was impressed by the new zoo, which promoted itself as world-class. “The zoo was called the Greater Los Angeles World Zoo, which was blasted since there was so much concrete,” Dee commented. “It looked like a bunch of bomb shelters. Two of the only exhibits that are still almost exactly the same are the ones for Nubian ibex and markhors, who had cliffs. Almost all of the moated exhibits have been destroyed. All the roundhouses had concrete floors back then but now they have dirt, grass, trees and plants.”

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The conversation turned to nearly fifty years later when Dee praised the zoo’s Elephants of Asia habitat and excellent elephant husbandry program. “They took out a lot of old exhibits for Elephants of Asia, which I think is great,” he said. “It was being built before I left and I told people the elephants would be so far away. Unless they’re up close to the edges the elephants look very small. I actually was lucky enough to go to Malaysia in 1990 and pick up Billy, who is still there. He is an absolutely spectacular animal.”

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“Billy and the other two elephants are in a great place right now,” Dee stated. “We’ve had protected contact for the past thirteen years, where we don’t go in with elephants and don’t use an ankus. The staff takes excellent care of them. Two of the elephant keepers have been there since Billy came to the zoo.” He stressed the importance of elephant care staff having personal experience and knowledge with the massive animals. “One time we had a guy from IDA who handcuffed himself to the front of the old elephant habitat,” Dee remarked. “I said the elephant could grab him and he said he can’t. The guy said he knew because he had studied elephants. When I asked how he said by watching them in Africa for two weeks. Of course that does not equal the knowledge that can only be learned from working with these guys up close on a daily basis. Little did he know Billy had his front seat up on the top of the wall and was trying to pull things out of the workman’s truck so he very well could have grabbed him.”

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The Los Angeles Zoo has long had an expansive variety of mammals including several rarities. Much of this diversity was due to the zoo’s longtime director Warren Thomas, who was there from 1974 to 1991. “Warren Thomas had directed the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville as well as the zoos in Oklahoma City and Omaha before he came here,” Dee recalled. “He did a lot of things. We used to have a lot of very common animals and Thomas wanted to focus on more endangered, colorful animals. So the mouflon went out and we brought in red sheep and Iranian ibex, which were very spectacular.”

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While originally Dee was a “reptile guy,” he ended up deciding he would “rather be working outside than in a heated box so I stuck it out with mammals.” Although he started at the zoo as an entry level keeper with no education in zoology, he took it upon himself to learn. “I would find out everything about whatever new animal we brought in,” Dee said. “I would read every book I could and find out what they did in the wild. You never know what the public will ask about an animal and I didn’t want to not have the answer to one of their questions. I started going to zoo conferences in 1975 and really enjoyed being introduced to other zoo people. Several keepers I became friends with at other zoos ended up being curators and even directors- Mark Rosenthal, Randy Reiches, Rick Barongi, Lewis Greene, Jim Breheny. We all grew up in the zoo world.”

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One of the biggest accomplishments of Dee’s career at the Los Angeles zoo was working with four species of rhinos, including the incredibly hairy and elusive hairy Sumatran rhinos. “I was in Indonesia when a Sumatran rhino named Torgombo was captured,” he remembered. “He went to Howletts in England. This animal was eating right out of our hands. Sumatran rhinos are amazing. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed working with them when they were at LA. We bred Indian and black rhinos successfully. We phased out the African rhinos to make room for the new orangutan exhibit. We still have one Indian rhinoceros who was born in Switzerland. She was sold to Busch Gardens in Houston in the early 70s before coming to the Gladys Porter Zoo. They had no opportunity to get a male there so they brought her to Los Angeles. She was a remarkable animal and had three calves although none of them survived.”

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When the Olympics came to Los Angeles in 1984, the zoo received giant pandas on loan from China and it was Dee’s responsibility to pick them up. “I'll never forget it,” he reflected. “I drove a swat vehicle from the LAPD and wondered all the way back what people would say if they knew pandas were in there. I drove all the way back to the zoo and we had a keeper, veterinarian and interpreter from China working with us. Working with pandas was very interesting because never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d ever work with giant pandas. I also worked with harpy eagles, which was really cool.”

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While not mammals, Dee was there when the Los Angeles Zoo became one of two zoos to help save the California condor from extinction. “We had the only condor in human care at the time,” he said. “I remember I never thought I’d see a condor but we had Topa Topa at the zoo, That was very, very inspiring. We had tried to get funds to build a condor flight cage and try to bred them but San Diego got all the funding to do that. We could get the condors but we couldn’t get the funding. San Diego got some condors and we got some condors which started the whole California condor recovery program. San Diego got the funds way before we did but we’ve released several condors into the wild too. Our guys do a lot of stuff in the local mountains we do nest checks and train the condor biologists about how to take care of them. “

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Similar to the incident around Elephants of Asia years later, Dee recalled “another guy attached himself in handcuffs to the front gate of the zoo” when the condor breeding program was beginning. Some zoo detractors felt it would be better for the California condor to go extinct in the wild than go into human care. However, the zoo program for condors was very successful. “We found out condors had a problem with lead,” Dee explained. “They’ll eat carcasses with gut piles and there would be pieces of lead in the deer. The condors would get the led poisoning when eating it and die. We found a way to treat them from this condition. We had to chill them to get the toxins out.”

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Another rare species the Los Angeles Zoo received was koalas, which are still there today. “We got koalas because Warren Thomas had gone to a meeting in Australia,” Dee explained. “We built a big old facility for the koala which was called Koala Hilton since Hilton Hotels invested in that habitat. They had an ad campaign to get koalas to Los Angeles. We brought in six koalas and they did very well. We even took one of them to Bronx for a summer and another to Columbus another summer. One by one the original ones passed away so we did a bunch of conservation work in Australia and got some more. We’ve done very well with the koalas and have successfully bred them.”

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One of Dee’s favorite things about the Los Angeles Zoo was its wide variety of hoofstock. “We were one of the first zoos to get bongo,” he recalled. “The first one I ever saw was at the Milwaukee Zoo and I thought it was beautiful. Soon after we brought some in. We also had Arabian oryx, who were very endangered. We had a baby born and the mother wouldn’t care for it so we milked a goat and fed the milk to the baby. We also had giant eland- the first ones in America other than Cincinnati. We did well with them but the curator felt we didn’t need them. That caused a big riff among the staff because they were magnificent animals. We also had many species of duiker since Warren Thomas was a duiker person. Duikers, bongos and gorillas were his three loves. We’ve been fairly successfully with the black and red-flanked duikers.” Dee even got to work with some rare species of antelope that are now completely absent from American zoos. “We had hirolas- hunter’s hartebeest,” he remarked. “We had them and Brownsville had them. We had the hirolas maybe a year since they never reproduced in LA and Brownsville expanded their area.”

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Michael Dee said one of the biggest challenges of the Los Angeles Zoo was for many years its lack of proper recognition by the community and the government. “They city paid no attention to the zoo,” he said. “One year all that was in our budget was one type writer stand. Warren Thomas tried to do things but it was lacking. There’s a San Diego Zoo billboard by my house north of Los Angeles while the Los Angeles Zoo can’t even advertise in the airport because they’re a city owned entity. When we had the pandas in 1984, people said they didn’t even realized we had a zoo in Los Angeles. Now the Los Angeles Zoo has much better pr and we get 1.2 million visitors a year.”

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During Dee’s tenure, there were times when the Los Angeles Zoo really struggled. “In the late 80s we just couldn’t get stuff done,” he reflected. “The city wouldn’t pay for anything. We even had a rodent problem. Once the USDA got involved things got better. I went around the zoo with USDA people all the time so I could answer any questions they needed answered. I developed a good relationship with them but whatever we would get written up there we would have no money to fix. That got the city’s attention so they started to put some money into the zoo. They realized we’ve got to do something about this because we can’t have all this bad publicity. They started to give us more maintenance guys. Once we got more employees we had fewer problems. One time I told the zoo director at the time the USDA would find nothing wrong and they gave us a completely good report.”

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Over the course of Dee’s career he worked for eleven different zoo directors, including zoo legends Ed Maruska and Dave Towne who took turns running the zoo for around a year. “They did a lot to turn the zoo around,” he said. “They switched off roles every few months. The last director I worked for was John Lewis, who is still there. He had been the curator at the Minnesota Zoo before. He was a real joy to work for!”

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A major step in the right direction for the Los Angeles Zoo was the opening of Chimpanzees of Mahale Mountain in 1998, the first exhibit on the new ballot. “Jane Goodall liked it,” Dee stated. “Before it was two moated enclosures- one for chimpanzees and another for Barbary apes. Those were knocked down and put together. They kept some of the back walls but made it much larger. It was originally going to resemble an abandoned logging camp but that didn’t come to fruition so much. Before the chimps were on concrete, which everyone thought was horrible.”

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The drastic change from outdated, ugly concrete to a beautiful, lush naturalistic environment was reflected in the chimps’ reactions to the new habitat. “When we opened it I remember seeing chimps jump on the grass and then go back to the concrete since they didn’t know grass,” Dee elaborated. “The younger chimps immediately ran all the way around the grass and enjoyed the new flooring. Thirty minutes later, the older chimps joined in too and they took a liking to it.” To this day Chimpanzees of Mahale Mountain is often thought of as being one of the best chimp habitats in America. “The chimps really enjoy it because they have trees to climb and food hid out there,” Dee commented. “There’s a termite mound that allows chimps to use sticks to get treats out of holes. The keepers are always putting out treats and challenging the apes to find them.”

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@ Los Angeles Zoo

Next up came a brand new home for the zoo’s orangutans which took them away from concrete and into a much more enriching space. “It allowed them to have three separate areas they could go into,” Dee remarked. “It was built with a special type of wire braided so the orangutans couldn’t pull it apart. The biggest problem with that habitat was we didn’t have any big logs or climbing structures. We had fake bamboo things in there but the orangutans spent too much time on the ground. Now they’ve redone the entire so it is like a big huge jungle gym for them to climb on all the different layers. It’s nice to see the orangutans climb all over it.”

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A third great ape species was given a modern new home at the zoo when Campo Gorilla Forest opened in 2007. “The area where Campo Gorilla Reserve is used to be bear grottos for three different species,” Dee said. “The whole area was transformed. We have two gorilla habitats- one for a family and one for bachelors. The SSP needed a space for male gorillas so we like many other zoos took on a bachelor group. Both habitats have water, bamboo and a really nice grassy area although the gorillas destroyed much of the vegetation.. It’s nice to see the gorillas be able to lay behind the bamboo. Every morning the gorillas have berries, sun flower seeds and other treats out for them to find. During the middle of the day keepers spread out some more so the gorillas are challenged to seek them out. They keep the gorillas active throughout the day.”

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Dee was upfront that animal husbandry has improved drastically over the years. “What they have learned is great,’ he said. “It used to be you’d get people to handgrab antelope or monkeys while now they use operant conditioning. They now train the gorillas and orangutans to voluntarily do blood draws, which is much safer for animals and staff. Operant conditioning is the way to go. If you don’t have to put an animal down to draw blood that’s great. Protected contact is a great thing since you can be right next to a potentially dangerous animal. It’s worked wonders for the animals.”

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An important step in the elevation of animal welfare was the development of animal enrichment. “At first the keepers started doing enrichment on their own,” Dee said. “Then we got a volunteer department and hired someone to head the enrichment division. They came up with all kinds of stuff. One of my favorites is pinecones with peanut butter for primates. We have an enrichment garden filled with rose petals, garlic plants and different things we can feed the animals.”

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Michael Dee retired in 2008 but still is very passionate about animals and zoos. “I think giving the animals more freedom to do what they want to do is the way to go,” he said. “You should know the animal enjoys where they’re staying. There’s nothing better than seeing these animals doing natural behaviors. Now the jaguars can lay on top of the logs and hide in the grass. It’s pretty great!” Dee is very proud of how the Los Angeles Zoo has grown and developed and has immense confidence it will continue to excel into the future.

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