Jason Jacobs' love affair with zoos began when he was just a kid, and his parents would drop him off to spend the day immersed in a world of elephants, lions, and lemurs.
As other kids gobbled candy, Jacobs wandered around in awe, taking meticulous notes about the animals' features, behaviors, and habitats.
It's because of days like that, Jacobs says, that today he's "the biggest agent in Hollywood."
In a sense, that's true: As director of PR and marketing for the LA Zoo, Jacobs oversees publicity efforts for "1,200 entertaining and talented clients," from the zoo's sea lions and orangutans to its botanical gardens.
Beyond getting his "clients" in the limelight, Jacobs says, his job is to truly educate both the zoo's 1.4 million annual visitors and the population at large about the facility's special events, informational outreach efforts, and major improvement projects, the latter of which includes plans for an idyllic waterfall- and swimming hole-dotted Pachyderm Forest, conceptually one of the largest - and most controversial - zoo exhibits in the US.
"It's not easy for everyone to view animals in the wild," Jacobs says. If he and his 10-person staff help people "gain a real appreciation for animals," he says, it will make a huge difference in the future of animal conservation and other wildlife issues.
Several exhibits are currently under construction, expected to open within the next few years, Jacobs says, offering improved environments for residents and visitors alike. Highlights include the Campo Gorilla Reserve, a Rainforest of the Americas, and a Chinese golden monkey exhibit (the first in the country).
"I tell people we're the largest community zoo in the US," Jacobs says. Something of an anomaly in LA - a market where the competition for entertainment dollars is vicious, and attractions often cater to specific audiences - the LA Zoo draws an incredibly diverse crowd.
"Admission still costs less than a movie ticket," he offers.
While the zoo's habitat-enhancement projects and various other activities provide tremendous outreach opportunities, the topic that has drawn the most media attention has been the two-acre Pachyderm Forest. There's been a call from animal-rights groups and policymakers for zoos around the US to discontinue elephant exhibits smaller than five acres. This is particularly tricky for the LA Zoo, as its estimated $38.7 million project budget is expected to be covered in large part by city park-bond revenue.
It's frustrating, Jacobs acknowledges, but he's had to be thick-skinned. "There are three things you shouldn't argue in life," he jokes. "Religion, politics, and animal activism." When problems like this arise, Jacobs says, he can't let them get in the way of the bigger picture. "Our mission is to educate and inspire. That's what we do."
It also helps that there is a strong association of zoo and aquarium professionals Jacobs can turn to for assistance.
"We really work together," he says. "If I have a problem, chances are, another zoo has dealt with it already."
There are similarities, Jacobs says, but there are uniquely LA aspects of his job, too, such as working with film crews and celebrity guests.
"In my first six months here, I met more celebrities than at all my other zoos combined," he says. And that celebrity guest/LA Zoo combination can be "a win-win situation for everyone."
"For a celebrity to be photographed here feeding a giraffe, and for that to then appear in People," Jacobs notes, "that escalates the zoo brand and the celebrity's image."
Los Angeles Zoo, director of PR and marketing
Potawatomi Zoo, South Bend, IN. Began as director of development (2001-2003), then became director of PR, marketing, and fundraising