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January 6, 2014

By Nicholas Beyelia

0610-I - Copy Circus elephant being loaded onto the S.S. Sea Centaur bound for Honolulu at Berth 159, December 12, 1946. Los Angeles Harbor Department Historical Archives, Materials Testing Laboratory Photograph Collection, 610-I. 

The above image of the elephant being loaded onto a cargo ship is among the most cherished images that exist in our photograph collection. The image has been featured on a number of Harbor Department publications and has drawn a lot of questions about animals at the Port of Los Angeles throughout the years. The fact is, Los Angeles Harbor has been the destination for an assortment of unpredictable and unusual goods including animals.  At its peak, fauna accounted for as much as 6,600 tons of the cargo imported/exported into Los Angeles Harbor.  Most of these numbers were, of course, related to livestock raised for commercial purposes, but a small number included exotic animals, like our elephant friend, bound for zoos, pet shops, circuses and even Hollywood movies.

In 1958, the Bombay Sentinel reported that a number of animals were brought to the Port on behalf of businessman Louis Goebel. Goebel was the owner of Jungleland USA, a theme park in Thousand Oaks, California.  The article reported that 22 zebras from Kenya startled dockworkers with their “cantankerous” nature: “For a few moments the handlers expected a stampede through the crowded docks. But the sturdy crates withstood the violent kicking and the disgruntled zebras were safely delivered to Goebel’s animal farm.”  In June 1964, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner featured a similar story of animals being imported for Goebel’s menagerie. The article opened by declaring that the crew had “really earned their pay today” and proceeded to explain that 20 “haughty” camels proved to be the cause of distress for a number of San Pedro longshoremen; the workers were spit upon as they struggled to lead the “reluctant immigrants” to a quarantine station. The Sentinel story did, however, note that the more peaceable animals like ostriches and wallabies managed to charm even the most hardened dockworkers.

camel2Camel being unloaded from a ship ca.1940. Courtesy Los Angeles Harbor Department Graphics Division.

Most of the animals that arrived at the Port were destined for zoos throughout the United States.  The Bombay Sentinel reported in June, 1958 that Dr. Charles Schroeder, Director of the San Diego Zoo, arrived at the Port of Los Angeles to greet 400 birds, reptiles and animals being shipped from Australia to the Port of Los Angeles on board the Matson Navigation Company’s freighter, Sierra. The animals, bound for the San Diego Zoo, included Tasmanian devils, wombats and dingoes; however, the star of the bunch was a rare New Guinea “yodeling” dog.  Schroeder was particularly elated to see this singing dog and told the press “this is the first time the breed has been seen outside the island of New Guinea and Australia.”

Nearly 10 years earlier, the Los Angeles Times reported that American President Line freighter S.S. President Grant unloaded 2500 animals from Siam [Thailand] including six baby elephants, four honey bears, 180 monkeys, 14 gibbons, 4 Siamese golden cats, 1900 birds and 100 snakes; the Times stated that most of these arrivals were bound for zoos and aviaries throughout California as well as New York and even New Hampshire; sadly, the paper also mentioned that a number of the monkeys were bound for test labs. Smaller stories about the transit of zoo animals were peppered throughout the press over the decades including a 1964 report from the Long Beach Press Telegram that showed polar bears being loaded on a ship bound for Peru. The accompanying caption explained the bears were being transferred from the San Diego Zoo to the Lima Zoo and were accompanied by 15 lbs. of food.

The Sentinel interviewed Port of Los Angeles Traffic Manager, J.F. Parkinson, who informed the paper that the number of animals transported through the port in 1958 would likely surpass the previous year. Parkinson went on to tell the reporter that the most unusual animal he had seen pass through the Port was a pair of Komodo Dragons; he added that he was unlikely to see them again since “the Dutch East Indies Government placed a ban on their export to prevent the species from becoming extinct.”

Currently, the transport of animals through the Port of Los Angeles is somewhat of an anomaly.  Since the switch to container-based shipping, most companies do not offer the sort of accommodations necessary to transfer animals safely across the ocean.  According to the Port of Los Angeles Wharfinger Division, the last time any animals arrived at the Port was 2007.

Special thanks to Port of Los Angeles staff members Jennifer Mosher and Jim Holdaway for their assistance with this post.

Nicholas Beyelia is a Student Professional Worker at the Port of Los Angeles Archives. He holds a M.A. in History from California State University, Los Angeles and is an M.L.I.S candidate at San Jose State University


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