A Zoo Without Borders: A Conversation with Beth Schaefer, General Curator at the Los Angeles Zoo

Since 2014, Beth Schaefer has served as General Curator of the Los Angeles Zoo, making her responsible for 1100 animals of over 250 species and their caretakers. She also serves as co-chair of the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center's Animal Care and Welfare Advisory Group, which benefits Grueller's gorillas. Schaefer has previously worked at the Houston Zoo, Disney's Animal Kingdom, the Center for Great Apes, the Kansas City Zoo and the Charles Paddock Zoo. Following in the footsteps of the late Mike Dee (the zoo's longtime General Curator), she has brought her immense animal knowledge to the zoo and helped bring its animal care programs to the next level. Here is her story.

@ Los Angeles Zoo

As a volunteer at the Charles Paddock Zoo in California, Beth Schaefer realized she wanted to be a zookeeper instead of a veterinarian. “I was a volunteer and a keeper aide for a year and a half,” she recalled. “It was a tiny zoo and they were just starting to think they needed to upgrade. Now when I visit, I see they’ve done so much.” Next, Schaefer moved to the Kansas City Zoo, which was in the process of doubling in size and undergoing a campaign to become a world-class zoo.

@ Charles Paddock Zoo

@ Charles Paddock Zoo

“I was at the Kansas City Zoo for more than seven years,” Schaefer remarked. “I started out as a relief keeper in the bird department. I never wanted to work with birds but I ended up loving them. I then worked with baboons, chimpanzees, orangutans, sea lions and flamingos. We got the flock of flamingos to reproduce for the first time in more than a decade.” Schaefer was promoted to supervisor but found the zoo’s resources to be underwhelming. “We didn’t have a lot of resources, our budget was terrible and our staffing wasn’t enough,” she recalled. “We went from being a city-run zoo to a private zoo, which was a long process but really worthwhile.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

One of Beth Schaefer’s best experiences at the Kansas City Zoo was working with its troop of chimpanzees, who lived in a state-of-the-art, 3-acre naturalistic habitat that opened early in her tenure. “I’d only been a keeper for a year so working with chimpanzees was quite an experience,” she stated. “You’ve really got to want to work with chimps but they were so much fun to work with. Watching them adapt to their new habitat was amazing.”

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Kansas City Zoo

The chimpanzee habitat was just one part of the zoo’s 95-acre Africa, an expansion that doubled the size of the institution when it opened in 1995. “It was a bonding experience for the team as we did things like build the off-exhibit holding areas,” Schaefer remarked. “We were there really long hours as we put it all together. On opening day, we were excited but were like 'Oh man! this is the guest’s African area now!' It was a bit of a shock as we had not had people back there for so long.”

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Kansas City Zoo

As remarkable as Africa was, guest reception was initially mixed. “They said it was too far of a walk,” Schaefer explained. “You had to walk down that really long bridge and some people said they liked it better when there were small exhibits where you could see the animals [easier] but we were like 'Why? This is amazing!' Back then, people weren’t as used to big open spaces [for zoo animals] and how you weren’t always necessarily close to them.” As guests became more understanding of the importance of animal wellness, they began to appreciate Africa more.

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

Next, Beth Schaefer joined the team at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. “Going to Disney was an experience for sure,” she stated. “As a manager, you had a big area with a lot to do. It’s a place where you get out of it what you put into it. You also had great opportunities for personal and professional development.” Schaefer spent her time at Disney on the primate and night teams. After two years at Disney, Schaefer, spent two years working at the Center for Great Apes, a sanctuary for chimpanzees and orangutans who used to be in entertainment. “Center for Great Apes was very different and taught me how to work on a shoestring budget,” she recalled. “I was happy to be there working with 14 orangutans. It was very different than a traditional zoo but very rewarding.”

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Center for Great Apes

Schaefer went on to become a curator at the Houston Zoo: first as Curator of Natural Encounters (the zoo’s small mammal house) and Sea Lions and later as Curator of Primates, Carnivores and Sea Lions. The Houston Zoo is particularly known for its strong focus on wildlife conservation. “The Houston Zoo was such an amazing experience,” Schaefer reflected. “The conservation mindset [at the zoo] is throughout their entire staff. I’d love to see that happen here [at the Los Angeles Zoo.] working in Natural Encounters was really cool as it was all about encounters for the guests. We were always out talking to guests and letting people know what’s going on in the wild. The sea lions were awesome to work with as they’re so smart. One of the biggest challenges [with them] was the water quality and life support system.”

@ Houston Zoo

One of Beth Schaefer’s biggest accomplishments at the Houston Zoo was helping design the state-of-the-art Gorillas of the African Forest, which opened in 2015. “I spent my last two years at Houston working on the design of the gorilla habitat,” she said. “I love the creative process [of habitats] and so much went into the design of that habitat. It was a lot of fun! It was a beautiful habitat and the building was amazing. Ours was different [from others] in that we could open up a panel and show guests their back room and how big and enriched it was. The graphics were all about the GRACE (Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education) Gorilla Project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To see that project highlighted was so rewarding and cool.”

@ Houston Zoo

@ Houston Zoo

“The outdoor habitat [at Houston] bears a strong resemblance to the bachelor habitat at Disney but we made it our own at Houston,” Schaefer continued. “There’s a boardroom up above that looks out into the habitat. The zoo board actually meets there and there’s a cool balcony where we can do VIP tours. People can literally get eye to eye with the gorillas on the second floor. The indoor day room was designed so that during things like a hurricane the gorillas can still have a really enriched and challenging space to use.”

@ Houston Zoo

@ Houston Zoo

A unique feature of Gorillas of the African Forest was gorillas could co-habitate with red river hogs. “It’s super cool they can go in with the red river hogs,” Schaefer remarked. “When they first let the gorillas out, they would look at the hogs. The female gorillas didn’t like the hogs so they’d throw vegetation down on them but the hogs would just eat it.”

@ Portico Group

@ Houston Zoo

In 2014, Beth Schaefer became General Curator of the Los Angeles Zoo, a position held for many years by the late Mike Dee. “I am originally from Los Angeles so when the general curator position came open I had to apply,” she remarked. The zoo had just finished an ambitious master plan that revitalized the zoo and included world-class facilities for Asian elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans as well as a state-of-the-art herpertarium, Latin American section, children’s zoo and new entrance.

@ Los Angeles Zoo

@ Los Angeles Zoo

Unlike the society run Houston Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo was managed by the City of Los Angeles. “I had worked in the city system while in Kansas City and it can be cumbersome but the really cool side of working for this city is you have a direct line to the city council and the mayor,” Schaefer noted. “[Until recently], the selling of ivory was still legal in California and there was a bill called AB96 that would outlaw it. The city came to us and asked if they should support [the bill] as a city. We said ‘Yes you should’ and they did. That kind of influence is extremely important as we’re in the second largest city in the nation. We’ve been inviting city council members to our zoo to see the elephant barn and show them how much we really care about the animals.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

@ Los Angeles Zoo

Currently, the Los Angeles Zoo is developing a new master plan that will make it a destination zoo. “One of the really, really exciting things about being here now is we’re doing our new master plan,” Beth Schaefer articulated. “We’re getting close to presenting it to city council. It looks at the future of the zoo and our vision. How it fits together is exciting and amazing. We did a strategic plan and the tagline that came out of it was we’re a zoo without borders. That applies to going out into the community and talking to other zoos and conservation partners. It applies to everything we’re about- conservation, biodiversity and getting Angelinos connected to the message.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

@ Los Angeles Zoo

The Los Angeles Zoo is historically known for its large, diverse animal collection. “We always have animals coming in and going out,” Schaefer stated. “We always have something going on, which is always a challenge. Our fantastic reptile team did a big confiscation of snakes [some of whom will eventually join our animal ambassador program.] We also have a challenge filling some of our older exhibits appropriately. We’ve moved some smaller primates and animal ambassadors into empty exhibits to create a more dynamic visitor experience. We’ve combined lots of old roundhouses into one big exhibit like we did for our snow leopards. We’ve added a lot of substrate [to the roundhouses] so we can plant in there, make it lush and give the animals more security. We’ve added more naturalistic features [to exhibits] like waterfalls and streams to help the animals feel more comfortable.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

@ Los Angeles Zoo

A major focus of the Los Angeles Zoo’s animal care staff is training. “We have training programs through our areas,” Beth Schaefer explained. “A lot of it is husbandry related so we can weigh most of our animals and look in their mouths. The animals we use for presentations are going to learn behaviors that help us present their natural behaviors. We just got two sea lions who will be part of the of the sessions in Sealife Cliffs. One of them came from the Houston Zoo with a lot of behaviors but what he’ll learn here is different as our presentations and exhibits are very different. The other sea lion is a blind, wild-caught male. He’s a rescue from the marine mammal center. He has to learn everything from scratch- all the presentation and husbandry behaviors. He’s adjusted very well, moving around his exhibit and enjoying his keepers.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

@ Los Angeles Zoo

Each animal poses different challenges. “Colobus monkeys can be extremely challenging to train but so are poison dart frogs,” Schaefer stated. “With animals who are super smart, you have to be way ahead of the game and ready before you get there. Position dart frogs don’t solve the same problems in their environment a primate has to so they think differently. The public doesn’t expect hippos and tapirs to be smart but they are incredibly so. Tapirs are problem solvers for sure. The Komodo dragons are also very smart and they pick up things really quick. You can teach them to put their feet on the mesh and turn their trail for a blood draw.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

@ Los Angeles Zoo

One of the highlights of the Los Angeles Zoo is the LAIR (Living Amphibians, Invertebrates, Reptiles), one of the best of its kind. “The LAIR is such a neat building,” Schaefer stated. “The staff does amazing things and we’ve bred a lot of species for the first time including gray’s monitors and Armenian vipers. It’s really cool we can exhibit snakes in floor to ceiling habitats and present them like they would be in the wild.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

@ Los Angeles Zoo

Another one of the Los Angeles Zoo’s premier exhibits is Elephants of Asia, one of the largest elephant facilities in the nation. “We would love to expand our elephant program,” Beth Schaefer remarked. “Billy is such a great male, and even in musth, so workable. He interacts with the females great. He’ll put his trunk in, he’ll touch them and he’ll let the girls take food out of his mouth.” Currently, the females and Billy cannot share the same space as “the girls are post reproductive and you have to really determine if they’re still cycling or not” and “Jewell has a bad hip and cannot hold his weight.” However, they interact between barriers.

@ Los Angeles Zoo

@ Los Angeles Zoo

In recent years, the Los Angeles Zoo has given visitors a much more insightful look into the animal care its residents receive. “Historically, zoos have been very reluctant to bring guests behind the scenes but we’re changing that,” Schaefer explained. “We need to show [the public] there are so many considerations that go into everything a zoo does. Bringing people behind the scenes lets them know how much care we give these animals and how much we care about the welfare of the animals we have the privilege to work with.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

@ Los Angeles Zoo

The Los Angeles Zoo is one of a handful in the country to house giant river otters from South America. “I was surprised at how much we have to do to manager our giant otters,” Beth Schaefer remarked. “I hadn’t worked with them and otters are usually pretty easy but giant otters are a whole different ballgame. You have to really pay attention to their social structure because, at two years old, they want to move out of their natal group. Also, they’re not cold tolerant. Our giant otter exhibit is one of our best exhibits. Since they’re been in the new exhibit, they’re been popping out kids.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

@ Los Angeles Zoo

The future of the Los Angeles Zoo looks very promising. “For our future, we are going to really get our message out there about how much conservation work we do and connect the citizens of Los Angeles with nature and conservation,” Beth Schaefer reflected. “We’re letting them see how they can be part of the solution. Our mission is to connect Angelinos to what we’re doing and how it’s connected to them.”

@ Los Angeles Zoo

@ Los Angeles Zoo

On top of being General Curator at the Los Angeles Zoo, Schaefer is co-chair of the Gorilla Rehabilitation And Conservation Education (GRACE) center Animal Care and Welfare advisory group, one of the leading programs to protect gorillas. “We started by sharing best practices with the GRACE staff and now other African sanctuaries are asking them to come to them and share GRACE practices,” she remarked. “The keepers at first said we don’t have the time to train these gorillas while now they’ve trained the gorillas to do everything. Coming up in the next year or two we will be looking at sending some of the gorillas back to the wild.”

@ Jones and Jones

@ Los Angeles Zoo

“To be able to use my animal management knowledge gained from the zoo field to help animals in the wild and let animals go back to the wild is the most amazing experience ever,” Beth Schaefer concluded. “This is why zoos matter. If it wasn’t for my experience working with gorillas in zoos, I couldn’t help bring gorillas back to the wild.”

@ Beth Schaefer

#LosAngelesZoo #HoustonZoo #DisneysAnimalKingdom #KansasCityZoo #CharlesPaddockZoo

You Might Also Like: