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Monkey Business : The Zoo Bears Up on April Fools’ Day

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<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

“Is Mr. Lion in? We have an urgent message to phone him , “ a female voice says.

“He left an urgent message for you too?” Sherrie Schwing asks with a laugh. “He’s been leaving a lot of urgent calls this morning.”

“Is this 666-4650?” the woman demands.

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“Yes. This is the Los Angeles Zoo,” Schwing says, “and the only Mr. Lion we have is unavailable to come to the phone.”

Every April 1 it is the same. The phone at the Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park doesn’t stop ringing.

Sherrie Schwing, a switchboard operator at the zoo for the last 12 years, sat down at her post shortly after 8:30 a.m. Tuesday with a cup of hot coffee that was soon left cold and forgotten.

“Good morning, Los Angeles Zoo,” she said, responding to one blinking red light after another, nearly 2,000 before the day was through. “May I help you?”

“Is there an Ellie Font there?” a man asked.

“She ought to be at the barn right now,” Schwing replied, stepping into the spirit of the day. After a pause, and because the caller didn’t seem to understand her joke, she added: “Somebody’s playing an April Fools’ Day prank on you.”

“Oh, gosh,” was the reply at the other end of the line.

And so it went, with calls for Mr. Wolf, G. Raffe, and Al Gator. Mr. Lion and Mrs. Bear were the most popular choices of the day, Ryna Soris perhaps the most original.

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“When people come to their offices they have messages waiting for them, and they return the calls,” Lorri Cohen, a zoo spokeswoman, said in explaining what zoo officials believe to be the reason for the calls. She noted that the annual joke wears thin on zoo staffers as regular calls fail to get through the jammed switchboard.

“It’s crazy, absolutely crazy,” Cohen said. “Several zoos around the country actually close down their switchboards April 1 rather than deal with it, and we considered that. Then we decided we may as well make the best of it.”

The San Diego Zoo got “all the regulars,” spokesman Jeff Jouett said Tuesday, “for Bob Katz, Anna Conda. We got a collect call from Ogden, Utah for L. E. Fant. . . . We had close to 500 calls before noon.”

Schwing, a 55-year-old resident of Los Angeles, seemed to rather enjoy the day. A telephone operator for more than 20 years, she said “the time I’ve enjoyed most has been at the zoo. It’s more varied.”

The calls never let up on April Fools’ Day, she said, but added, “If you kind of look at it like it’s fun and sort of go along with the tide, it’s not that difficult.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lion is out for brunch,” Schwing, said, keeping one hand close to her cords and switches, to more quickly plug in the next call and try out another one-liner:

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“Good morning . . . Mrs. Robin? I think she’s out of her nest. Somebody’s playing a prank on you . . . I’m sorry, Public Works. . . .”

“Before, I had the city attorney’s office,” Schwing said, disconnecting. “Now it’s Public Works.”

There are zoo staffers with animal names, she added, “so I have to be careful.” The zoo has an administrative secretary named Ruth Baer, a keeper named Bob Wolf, and Ralph Crane, the assistant zoo director.

Some people couldn’t accept the fact that a joke had been played on them Tuesday, and Schwing had trouble getting them off the phone.

“Mr. Bear called you twice this morning?” she queried one caller. “Well, I’m awfully sorry . . . don’t you see . . . bear . . . Los Angeles Zoo?” Schwing sighed. “Have a nice day.”

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