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The Late, Great Animal Amusements
of Los Angeles County

Old Griffith Park Zoo, 1940

Old Griffith Park Zoo (1912-1966). Photo by Burton Frasher, courtesy of Pomona Public Library via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1885, the City of Los Angeles opened Eastlake Zoo (located at present-day Lincoln Park), the first permanent animal-oriented attraction in the Los Angeles area. This early zoo, however, was apparently highly inadequate and, by 1901, the LA Times described its animal quarters as “anything but satisfactory.” The zoo was closed in 1912 and its 15 animals were transferred about seven miles away to the new city-owned Griffith Park Zoo (located on the site of the former Griffith & Sketchley Ostrich Farm - see below). The new zoo, nevertheless, was still considered inadequate for its animal residents and was reported to be leaking sewage into the L.A. River. During World War I, Griffith Park Zoo tried to compensate for wartime meat shortages by feeding its meat-eaters horse meat, causing the deaths of some of its big cats. The zoo remained open until 1966 when it was closed to make way for the opening of today’s Los Angeles Zoo about one mile north. The eerie ruins of Griffith Park Zoo can still be visited.

Besides these public zoos, a number of privately-owned animal attractions were also opened throughout the Los Angeles area:

Griffith & Sketchley Ostrich Farm or Kenilworth Ostrich Farm

ketchley-Griffith Ostrich Farm, 1886

Sketchley-Griffith Ostrich Farm, 1886. From the California Historical Society Collection at USC Library

Founders: Griffith J. Griffith, rancher, and Charles Sketchley, naturalist

Period: 1885-1889

Location: Griffith Park, Los Angeles

In 1883, English naturalist Charles Sketchley imported a small number of ostriches from South Africa to Buena Park to try to meet the demand for then-popular ostrich feathers. Within a few months, the exotic birds also drew visitors, who Sketchley began charging for admission. In 1885, Sketchley closed his Buena Park farm to partner with Griffith J. Griffith to open a similar farm at what would later become Griffith Park. The location was much closer to the Los Angeles population center than was Sketchley's Orange County farm. The following year, investors, hoping to cash in on the curious public, funded construction of a rail line that connected visitors from Downtown Los Angeles to the farm. As many as five trains carrying paying visitors arrived at the farm each day. The farm did not last long afterward, however, when, in 1889, financial difficulties forced Sketchley and Griffith to close.

Cawston Ostrich Farm

Cawston Ostrich Farm Postcard, ca. 1907-1915

Visitors watch ostriches being fed oranges at Cawston Ostrich Farm in South Pasadena, ca. 1907-1915. Courtesy South Pasadena Public Library.

Founders: Edwin Cawston, entrepreneur

Location: Norwalk (1886-1895) and South Pasadena (1895-1935), at approximately 100 Pasadena Avenue (Nature Park), alongside Arroyo Seco.

Period: 1886-1935

In 1885, Edwin Cawston arrived from South Africa to Southern California with his own small flock of ostriches. Although he left Africa with 50 birds, only 18 survived the trip. These were enough, however, to open, in the following year, an ostrich farm in Norwalk. Cawston moved his farm to South Pasadena in 1895 and was able to breed his flock to more than 100 ostriches. In the years that followed, Cawston Ostrich Farm became a premier tourist draw. Located along the Los Angeles Electric Railway line between Los Angeles and the very popular Mount Lowe Railway in Pasadena, the ostrich farm in South Pasadena became a popular stop. There, visitors could be photographed mounted on an ostrich (likely a stuffed one), ride ostrich-drawn carts, watch ostriches being fed, and obtain products made of ostrich feathers. In fact, the ranch’s ostrich-feathered products were sold all over the world. The farm location is now a South Pasadena cultural landmark.

Los Angeles Ostrich Farm or Luna Park Ostrich Farm

Los Angeles Ostrich Farm in Lincoln Heights, ca. 1928

Woman preparing to ride an ostrich at Los Angeles (Luna Park) Ostrich Farm in Lincoln Heights, ca. 1928. From the California Historical Society Collection at USC Library

Founders: Francis Earnest, attraction entrepreneur (also see next entry)

Location: Lincoln Park, northeast corner of Mission Road and Lincoln Park Avenue, Los Angeles.

Period: 1906-1953

In 1906, seeing the popularity of Cawston Ostrich Farm in nearby South Pasadena, Francis Earnest, said to be a one-time mining cook, calculated that the public could not get their fill of ostriches. He opened the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm (also called Luna Park Ostrich Farm) adjacent to Lincoln Park (then Eastlake Park). Like the Cawston Farm, Earnest's farm offered visitors opportunities to pose with the exotic large birds, mount them and ride ostrich-drawn carriages. In some vintage photographs, visitors even appeared to dine on the massive birds. The farm remained open until 1953, outlasting its local competitors and boasted of becoming the largest ostrich farm in the country. Earnest did not think that ostriches were enough, however. A year after opening the ostrich farm, he formed a new partnership and opened yet another animal attraction next door (see next entry).

Los Angeles Alligator Farm

Los Angeles Alligator Farm, ca. 1900

Los Angeles Alligator Farm in Lincoln Park (then Eastlake Park), ca. 1900. From the California Historical Society Collection at USC Digital Library

Founders: Francis Earnest (also see previous entry) & partner Joe "Alligator" Campbell, attraction entrepreneurs

Location: Lincoln Heights, northeast corner of Mission Road and Lincoln Park Avenue, Los Angeles.

Period: 1907-1953

Featuring 2,000 alligators (and other reptiles), the Alligator Farm became yet another major Los Angeles tourist attraction. Residents could sit on alligators, handle them, watch them eat live chickens, and watch them slide down chutes. At the time, there were few laws regulating safe handling and space for handlers, visitors and alligators, allowing what today would be unacceptable interactions between human and reptile. Local residents also endured nightly alligator bellowing and occasional escapes into the neighborhood. As with other Los Angeles area animal attractions, the farm's alligators were often used in film-making. Many of the alligators famously seen wrestling Tarzan in movies were from the Alligator Farm. In 1953, after years of declining interest, the farm was moved to Buena Park, renamed the California Alligator Farm. There it remained open until 1984.

Selig Zoo

Entrance to Selig Zoo in Lincoln Park, Ca. 1915-1925

Postcard showing entrance to the Selig Zoo in Lincoln Park, ca. 1915-1925, published by S. H Kress & Co. From Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection at William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

Founders: William Selig, film producer

Location: Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles

Period: 1915-1925

Having amassed a large collection of show animals for his studio’s jungle films (more than 700 animals, said to be the largest collection of wild animals in the world), film producer William Selig decided try profiting by opening his menagerie to the public. In the first six months after opening, the zoo attracted 150,000 visitors – this at a time when Los Angeles only had a population of half a million. It soon was attracting about 300,000 visitors a year. Selig’s film business, however, later went into decline and, by 1925, he could no longer afford to keep the zoo open. After its closure, Selig sold many of the animals to the zoo's new owners (see next entry) and donated some to the Griffith Park Zoo. A collection of 15 concrete lions and elephants, sculpted by Italian sculptor Carlo Romanelli, that graced the elaborate zoo entrance, remained for the succeeding zoos. During the 1950s, long after there was no longer a zoo at the site, the sculptures were removed and placed in storage. In 2000, they were rediscovered. Ten were restored and seven – all lions - were installed in 2009 at the Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park.

Luna Park Zoo and later California Zoological Gardens or Zoopark

Trainer and Panther at Zoopark, 1936

Trainer Olga Celeste with "Midnight" the panther at Zoopark, 1936. Photo from the LA Times Photo Archive Collection, UCLA Digital Library.

Founders: Luna Park Group, then California Zoological Society

Location: Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles

Period: 1925-1940

After William Selig could no longer afford to operate the Selig Zoo, he sold it to Luna Park Group which renamed it Luna Park Zoo. In 1932, Luna Park Zoo, in turn, closed, after which the nonprofit California Zoological Society took over and renamed it California Zoological Gardens (later called Zoopark). Like its predecessor, Selig Zoo, Zoopark derived its primary income from renting performing animals to the film industry. Some of its animal residents achieved fame, such as Nissa the leopard, starring in the 1938 Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn film Bringing Up Baby, and Jackie the lion (who also spent time at Gay’s Lion Farm - see next entry), one of MGM’s iconic roaring lions. By 1938, however, dwindling income from film rentals and, worse yet, the devastating 1938 flood that swept away animals, cages and jungle sets, exhausted Zoopark’s already stressed finances. The zoo’s 300 animals were facing starvation and, unable to pay its bills, the zoo faced eviction by the sheriff. The president of the California Zoological Society made a desperate appeal to the public for help and disaster was averted, but only temporarily so. By 1940, Zoopark sold off the last of its animal collection and closed. The facility continued as a small amusement park until 1957.

Gay’s Lion Farm

Lion tamer Charles Gay with four lions at Gay’s Lion Farm, El Monte, ca. 1923

Lion tamer Charles Gay with four lions at Gay’s Lion Farm in El Monte, ca. 1923. Photo from Los Angeles Daily News Negatives, Dept. of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Founders: Charles & Muriel Gay, circus performers

Location: El Monte, just west of south-east junction of Peck Road & Valley Boulevard (up against 10 Freeway).

Period: 1925-1942

In 1925, Frenchman Charles Gay and his English wife Muriel, both circus performers, founded Gay's Lion Farm in El Monte, after about a decade of conducting lion performances in MacArthur Park (then Westlake). Although their emphasis was on providing the film industry with lion performers, the Lion Farm became internationally famous and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Southern California. Much as Disneyland later did for Anaheim, Gay's Lion Farm put El Monte on the map. Each day, large numbers of visitors came by car and tour bus to the attraction. During its time of operation, the farm saw one million visitors. Some of its lion residents achieved fame. The famous roaring MGM lions, “Slats” and “Jackie” were residents. “Numa” was a star in Charlie Chaplin's film The Circus (1928). Greta Garbo made one of her early promotional photo-shoots with lions at the farm. In 1942, wartime rationing of meat forced the farm to temporarily close. Gay’s health, however, prevented it from reopening after the end of the war. The Gays later sold off property and retired to Orange County. El Monte High School traces its lion mascot to the farm and the lion statue in front of the school had been originally commissioned for the farm. The site of the farm now lies beneath the I-10 freeway.

Los Angeles Monkey Farm

Monkey Farm Promotional Ad, 1929

Promotional ad for The Monkey Farm in Culver City, 1929.

Founders: Bill H. Rice

Location: 5731 Washington Blvd, Culver City

Period: 1929-1935?

Opened in 1929 to meet the popularity of monkey-oriented exhibits in America during the 1920s and 1930s, Bill H. Rice opened the Los Angeles Monkey Farm in Culver City. The attraction featured hundreds of simians, including Vest Pocket Marmosets, Baboons, Chimpanzees and Orangutans. A number of these animals were trained as pets and to perform on stage and in film. It is unclear exactly when and why the attraction closed.

Monkey Island

Simians on Monkey Island in the Cahuenga Pass, 1940

Hundreds of simians living at Monkey Island in the Cahuenga Pass, 1940. Photo from California State Library.

Founders: Louis Weiss (mistakenly said to be brother Adolph Weiss), independent low-budget film producer & Jack Cone (per LAist)

Location: 3300 Cahuenga Blvd in the Cahuenga Pass (approximately at El Paseo del Cahuenga Park)

Period: 1938-early 1940s

In November 1938, Louis Weiss, one of three brothers who jointly produced low-budget film serials, brought in 500 Asian monkeys through the port in Long Beach, said to be the “largest single collection of monkeys ever to arrive in America.” Shortly after, he opened Monkey Island on the San Fernando Valley side of the Cahuenga Pass, quickly drawing a reported 30,000 visitors within months. The attraction featured a 20-foot-wide moat that surrounded a 150-foot-long oval “island” with two 40-foot-tall concrete "mountains" with waterfalls, palm trees and swings. On these, monkeys scampered, fought and amused themselves in front of visitors who purchased peanuts to toss at them. Although the moat and netting surrounding the island was there to keep the animals on the island, there were occasional escapes (in 1940, about 100 monkeys fled the island when the moat was temporarily drained). Weiss assured concerned authorities that the monkeys would return, which they apparently did. Monkey Island was marketed to potential visitors as a place where they might rub elbows with film celebrities, due to its close proximity to Hollywood. In fact, among stars that did visit were Errol Flynn, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Phil Harris, Dickie Jones and Joan Bennett.

Monkey Island closed sometime during the early 1940s, likely due to America’s entry into World War II.

Marineland of the Pacific

Postcard of Marineland of the Pacific, ca. 1950s

Porpoise Feeding Time, Marineland of the Pacific, ca. 1950s, from the Los Angeles Almanac Collection.

Founder: Oceanarium Inc., operator of oceanariums in Florida and California

Location: Rancho Palos Verdes (location of present-day Terranea Resort, 100 Terranea Way)

Period: 1954-1987

In 1954, one year before the opening of Disneyland, Oceanarium, Inc., opened Marineland of the Pacific, its second marine-oriented amusement park (Marineland of Florida was opened 16 years earlier). Located on the coast in Rancho Palos Verdes, it was the largest oceanarium in the world.

Marineland of the Pacific (known as Hanna-Barbera’s Marineland during the 1970s and early 1980s) featured two giant steel 22-foot-deep salt-water tanks, lined with three levels of viewing windows around the sides, connected by exterior ramps. Through these windows, visitors observed a huge variety of swimming marine life and, at the top, looked down into the vast tanks. At the top of one tank was a 1,500-seat amphitheater in which shows were held of its famed performing orcas (killer whales) Corky, Orky and Bubbles. The park also featured a landmark 414-foot observation tower and several other smaller viewing tanks and show stadiums for dolphin and seal performances. It was also famous for its unique “Baja Reef” swim-through aquarium.

In 1986, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (HBJ), owners of SeaWorld San Diego, offered to buy the remaining pair of orcas from the financially struggling Marineland. SeaWorld was finding it difficult to find orcas for their new “Shamu” program, due to new prohibitions on capturing orcas in the wild. Rather than just part with their animals, however, Oceanarium, Inc. offered to sell all of Marineland of the Pacific. This alarmed the City of Rancho Palos Verdes and Marineland fans, rightfully suspecting that HBJ’s intentions were to take the orcas and shut the park down. In public testimony before the Rancho Palos Verdes city council, HBJ offered assurances that they intended to renovate the park and continue to operate it. Nevertheless, within weeks of completing the purchase, HBJ secretly trucked the orcas (Corky and Orky) to San Diego in the middle of the night and then promptly closed the park. The oceanarium’s tank drains were filled with concrete so as to no longer be usable and the land sold to a developer. Although HBJ's explanations that they underestimated the cost of renovating the park were generally considered disingenuous, there was little that Marineland fans could do. Sadly, the orca male, Orky, died a few years later. Corky, the female, was renamed “Shamu.”

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