There are actually two zoos in Griffith Park, including the remains of the old zoo that was shut down in the sixties. The idea of this strange animal ghost town was fascinating, as was the choice to leave it intact instead of tearing it down. We read as much as we could about it before we went, although we didn't know anyone who had actually been, so it was hard to gauge what the place was actually like.
What we found was...surreal. There are big rock facades, cold stone enclosures, and abandoned animal cages set against the backdrop of a very pretty park. It was nowhere near as dirty or overrun with vagrants as you might expect from such places, since most of the graffiti is contained to hidden areas. We found that it's actually now fairly easy to get to since parts of the fences are now open, and the park rangers we came across just nodded at us a bit knowingly. There are no signs leading to the old zoo, but once you're in it, there is a sign that tells you a little bit about it.
Some of the structures are nearly entirely gone, either from fires or from decay, and although the zoo is small, it's an interesting place to visit. (It's suitable for well-monitored children, too, although it's best to keep them out of the pens. A lot of explanations might be required, depending on age.)
One of the biggest surprises was that we were able to access many of the animal pens with just a little effort, including many cages and stone enclosures. After climbing over a few bars and broken glass in the back of one enclosure, we went up steep, cold stone steps to the top of the hill where there were even smaller enclosures that felt very much like dark, creepy jails. I felt really bad for the animals that were kept there, as the experience was fairly claustrophobic for us, and we were only in each one for a matter of minutes. I think this in part why the city has left these structures, however, as the scattered signs around the zoo make reference to "better understanding developments in zoological science."
I sometimes have trouble with the idea of zoos in general, since you hear about so many problems with inadequate funding and care for animals that are so clearly out of their natural habitats. But I also remember with great fondness my many visits to the National Zoo as a child, and how much I learned from seeing real live animals up close. A panda isn't really real if you see him in a textbook. But if you experience him from the moment he's just a stick of butter to being a playful cub to his attempts to mate to his sad, dignified passing--well, there's a connection there that just can't be duplicated just by reading books or watching dvds. It would be amazing for sure if zoos in general had more resources, or perhaps if they were treated more like preserves.
If you'd like to learn more about the old L.A. zoo, some of the controversy over its beginnings are pretty educational. It's a very odd experience to walk around this sunny green setting and to hear birds chirping, and to walk into these structures and know that they once housed bears and monkeys and other animals. But it's a truly fascinating part of the city's history, and one I'm glad we experienced.