When you got into the sixth form at my otherwise less than enlightened English grammar school, you were allowed to walk outside the school grounds at lunch time: all kinds of punishments were meted out to younger boys who failed to stay inside the boundaries.
This sixth form freedom felt pretty good, sometimes it felt like a prison break, though I can’t say it was used very excitingly. We went and bought sandwiches at the local shop, and I’m sure some bad lads slipped away to smoke, although to be caught smoking outside the school grounds was every bit as grave an offence as being caught smoking inside the school grounds.
I wasn’t a smoker anyway, and many of my lunchtimes were spent wandering – my mother would have called it “mooching” - around the nearby Botanic Gardens. Botany and gardens were predictably less than fascinating to a 17 year old boy, but I do remember being intrigued by a large circular pit on the south side of the gardens. It was maybe 25 feet across, and maybe 15 deep, the walls lined with antique masonry, and there were railings around the top to stop you climbing or falling in.
We called it the bear pit, though I don’t think we actually believed that bears had ever been kept in it. We were wrong. I now discover that bears were indeed kept there in the nineteenth century, from 1836 to some time in the 1870s. Incidentally, bear baiting was outlawed in England in 1835, so I suppose this was built as a kind of retirement home for bears whose baiting days were over. The pit was closed after a child fell in and was killed. The Botanic Gardens website doesn’t say whether the child was killed by the fall or by the bears, but you’ve got to hope it was the former.
Some years back, on a return visit to Sheffield, I walked around and around the Botanic Gardens trying to find the bear pit again, and I absolutely couldn’t. I was torn between thinking that perhaps I’d imagined its existence and there’d never been a bear pit at all, while also thinking on the other hand that perhaps it had been filled in, erased from history in the interests of political, or I supposed zoological, correctness. I was evidently wrong again.
The bear pit is still there, and has been refurbished as part of the gardens’ entire restoration. You can now walk into it, and it contains a statue of an improbably benign-looking bear, who remains unmoved however much you bait him. Actually, to me, he looks more like a man in a bear suit, but in a country where there have been no wild bears for about a thousand years, the sculptor might be forgiven for getting the anatomy a little wrong.
The last wild grizzly bear in California was killed in 1922, some 6 years after the last one in LA county. Black bears we’ve still got, and at one of the southern entrances to Griffith Park we also have a bear statue. He too gets anthropomorphized from time to time, for instance being dressed up as Santa Claus or decked out in a Lakers uniform, depending on the season.
For that matter there are even live bears in Griffith Park, since on the north eastern corner it contains the LA Zoo, a place I go once in a while because my wife is an animal lover. It’s fine as far as it goes, but a visit there seems ever more to resemble a walk around a gigantic food court that happens to have a few animals thrown in – the Gorilla Grill, indeed - but that’s another story.
Far more intriguing, if essentially animal-free, is the old abandoned zoo nearer to the center of Griffith Park. It’s been listed by the website Weburbanist.com as a place of “Amazing American Abandonment” which strikes me as overstating the case, but undoubtedly it is a great and surprising place to wander around.
As sites of amazing abandonment go, it’s remarkable easy to access. There’s plenty of parking nearby, a children’s playground, public toilets, and you’ll see people having picnics and playing frisbee right outside, and sometimes even inside, the ruins. And that’s one of the interesting things: some people in the park simply ignore the old zoo structures, and maybe they don’t even see the cages and the bars and the fake rocks, while others seem completely bewitched by them.
The zoo was actually founded in 1912, but most of the cool features were built by the WPA in the 1930s. The less cool features make it look like a hideous animal prison. The authorities address this by posting notices that say, “although these historic enclosures are no longer appropriate for housing animals, they can be home to memories of family visits ..” blah blah. Of course it’s those words “no longer” that seem especially uncomfortable to a modern sensibility. Surely, we think, these enclosures were never appropriate for housing animals. The place closed in 1965.
There’s something inscrutable about many of the old structures. You have to guess what they were and which animals were housed in which: was this a monkey house or an aviary or a cage for big cats? What animal needed bars as thick as some of these, and were visitors really able to get as close as it now appears?
In that sense, the experience is not so different from exploring any set of ruins anywhere. It’s a little like going to Pompeii and trying to work out which was the thermopolium, which was the macellum, though in the case of the old Griffith Park zoo, there’s no map or guide book to direct you, and I haven’t been able to find one, but I’m still working on it.
The most striking and easily identifiable structures in the old zoo are referred to as the bear grottoes, a rather more poetic, in fact euphemistic, way of saying a bunch of pokey, gloomy manmade caves that look like a movie set, and have in fact been used as one. The great attraction here is that you can actually go inside, climb on the rocks, pad along the shadowy passageways, press your snout against the gates and the bars. You can have the, admittedly anthropomorphic, experience of feeling what it must have been like to be a caged animal: pretty goddam awful, obviously.
A lot of people have certainly been in there before you. Certain parts of the grotto interiors have been turned into a kind of graffiti palace, most of it inevitably ugly and depressing, much of it just tagging. There was even one golden oldie, though it looked pretty fresh, tagged El Barto: Matt Groening must be so proud.
Still, one or two areas are eerily compelling, including the dark, dead end corridor (below), which rests in complete darkness unless you have a flashlight with you, or shoot it with your on-camera flash. And yes that Frankenstein head at the top really is luminous.
Actually it’s remarkably difficult to find pictures of the zoo before it was abandoned. This one is from the LA Public library collection, dated July 13, 1959:
The caption reads, "Visits Children's Friend -- Gail Petersen, the 15-year-old Van Nuys student, visits Griffith Park zoo bear she named to win contest which will send her, her parents, and two friends across the polar ice cap to Denmark to visit relatives and tour Europe as guest of SAS [Scandinavian Airlines]." Clearly this bear is not in one of the grottoes, and even if this shot was setup solely for the benefit of the photographer, you have to think young Ms. Petersen was lucky to go home with a full set of fingers.
You might come away from the zoo thinking, well OK, we’ve made some kind of progress. We’ve become more compassionate, more caring about our non-human fellow creatures. Nobody today would ever dream of housing animals in conditions like this. And yet, as I climbed up a set of stairs inside one of the grottoes and looked out through the chain link opening at the top, I spotted a couple of guys hanging out on the other side. I didn’t think anything of it at first. I assumed they were just other visitors to the park, which they were, though of a rather specialized kind.
After I came out of the grottoes I walked around the other side, the service entrance as it were, and there were the two guys again. I could see them better now, young, healthy-looking, a Rasta and a hippie, and they’d made a camp right there at the rear end of the grotto, they were living there, behind the chainlink, invisible to passersby, though exposed to the view of the occasional pesky, low-level urban explorer who poked around in the bear grottoes. These zoo structures might not be considered “appropriate” habitation for animals anymore, but obviously they were quite appealing for certain human beings.