Zoo Rethinks VIP Visits After Attack

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Behind-the-scenes visits at the Los Angeles Zoo by celebrities and donors, the backbone of the zoo's fund-raising, will be reevaluated following an attack last weekend by a Komodo dragon.

Zoo spokeswoman Lora LaMarca said the zoo has hosted six other private viewings of zoo animals by celebrities this year and about two visits a month by potential donors. But nothing like Saturday's attack has ever happened before, she said.

"We are [reconsidering] our behind-the-scenes policy and are certainly looking at this particular incident," LaMarca said.

In a special arrangement by his wife, actress Sharon Stone, San Francisco Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein was having a private audience with the 7-foot-long lizard when it crushed his big toe with its jaws. Bronstein escaped and underwent foot surgery, and remained hospitalized at Cedars Sinai Medical Center on Monday.

In-person visits to the Komodo dragon are now off limits to everyone, LaMarca said.

But the zoo has long relied on donors who are invited to visit animals one on one.

"The donor behind-the-scenes visits are the backbone of our Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn. fund-raising," LaMarca said. "We can take people behind the scenes and show the conditions that need change. It has more impact."

The special visitors do not have to pay a fee for these visits, but LaMarca said they have, for example, played a significant role in raising $5 million for a new gorilla exhibit. The zoo still needs $2.8 million to complete the project, she said. The zoo seeks to raise $5.5 million this year, and has already reached $5.3 million.

Visitors are never allowed to touch animals such as tigers, that are known to be dangerous, but possums, ferrets and rabbits can be petted, she said. The Komodo dragon had not been considered aggressive.

Martine Colette, director of the Wildlife Waystation in Angeles National Forest, said private showings for donors and celebrities are common and vital for her fund-raising efforts, too.

"We are dependent on the charity and goodwill of the public," she said.

Colette said Drew Barrymore and other celebrity visitors have received private viewings of animals. Unlike the L.A. Zoo, the animals at the Waystation are brought outside their habitats to be seen by the donors, she said.

LaMarca said most of the zoo's celebrity visitors pay for a ticket like other customers and do not request behind-the-scenes visits. But zoo workers will cordon off areas to give the celebrities privacy and prevent crowds from rushing to them, she said.

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