Caring is conservation for the LA Zoo's Jason Jacobs

Jason Jacobs poses with a red panda at the Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend, Ind., in 2005. This was his first full-time zoo job. He started as education curator and became development director.
Jason Jacobs poses with a red panda at the Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend, Ind., in 2005. This was his first full-time zoo job. He started as education curator and became development director.
Courtesy of Jason Jacobs

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People hold a range of opinions about whether zoos are good places for animals. Critics argue that enclosures for large animals can confine them too much and harm their mental health. Zoo advocates say the animal exhibits offer valuable educational opportunities to children and other people who can’t travel to view creatures in the wild. The man in charge of navigating between passionate people at both ends of the spectrum at the Los Angeles Zoo is Jason Jacobs.

“Well, we’ve got our two girls here, Tina and Jewel," says Jacobs, director of public relations and marketing for the LA Zoo, pointing to the pair of female elephants recently acquired from the San Diego Zoo. The third longtime inhabitant here is Billy, the bull.

Their home is the new 6-acre Elephants of Asia exhibit that LA City leaders pushed to get built. About 4 of those acres allow elephants to roam. However, the activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals calls the exhibit a monumental waste of $42 million. LA trial attorney David Casselman is suing to shut down the exhibit.

Jacobs takes these challenges in stride as he strolls the 130-acre grounds of the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens to chat with visitors. On this day, he runs into a couple from Michigan.

“Well, we have a decent zoo where we are," says Ian Kleiman. "We’re from Grand Rapids."

“Oh, the John Ball Zoo?" asks Jacobs.

“Yeah," says Kleiman. "The John Ball Zoo.”

Jacobs has been there. He says he’s visited more than 160 zoos in the US, Canada and Europe. The 34-year-old has even made time for zoo visits on three African safaris.

“I plan vacations around visiting zoos," says Jacobs as he laughs.

Jacobs says he was maybe 3-years-old the first time he went to a zoo. It was in Miami where he grew up.

“… and I remember the keepers were walking an elephant through the zoo, a young elephant, and I got to touch it," says Jacobs. "Right then and there I was hooked. That’s all I ever wanted to do my entire life.”

Jacobs says that early on, his family shared his passion for zoos. He remembers how his mother would encourage him to play with green plastic strawberry baskets.

“… after we were done with the strawberries," says Jacobs, "I would take those and those would become the enclosures.”

When those ran short, Jacobs says his mom’s dishwasher utensil rack would be fair game.

"If you turn that over," he says, "those look like zoo enclosures also."

And then, one of his grandmothers taught him how to use papier-maché.

“I’d make little papier-maché rockwork like you’d see at the back of the exhibits," he says. "And I’d make my own little zoos at home.”

Jacobs recalls a kindergarten classroom exercise in which children talked about what they wanted to be when they grow up.

“I wanted to be a zoo keeper," Jacobs recalls. "Specifically, I wanted to work with elephants.”

That’s a big part of what Jacobs calls his dream job at the LA Zoo, although his role there uses his brain more than his hands. His responsibilities include arranging media interviews and writing press releases. Jacobs’ office is lined with reference books.

A couple of his prized possessions include a 1966 LA Zoo passport that was a present from his great uncle who was also a charter member of the Greater LA Zoo Association and a guidebook from New York's Bronx Zoo from 1925. The impressive stacks on his bookshelves include works on zoo history, wildlife field guides, as well as current and archival zoo guidebooks.

“It’s really uh … an odd hobby,” says Jacobs.

A hobby Jacob happily shares with kids who are curious about becoming zoo keepers. He realizes that for many reasons not everybody likes the idea of zoos. But his personal mission is to educate and inspire adults and kids to care about animals.

To Jacobs, caring is conservation.