TALK TO THE ANIMALS : Nero, Tucson and the Gang Extend Greetings From the Santa Ana Zoo

Mary Helen Berg is a regular contributor to the Times Orange County Edition.

"Reeeeeeeek! Reeeeeeeeek!"

It's early on a rainy morning at the Santa Ana Zoo and the tawny Barbary macaque monkey is impatient. It is breakfast time.

"Reeeeeeeeeeek!" She screeches at zookeeper Ray Cosper until he tosses her breakfast--yams, broccoli, peanuts and leafy greens. Snatching a fistful, she is quiet.

"She lost her mate about a month ago," Cosper says, watching her nibble. "She's not eating as much as she did, but she's holding her own."

Cosper knows every monkey on his "string" at the zoo. After 10 years, he knows every face and every trick. He knows when the macaque is lonely and if a silver langur's ferocity is a bluff. On a private tour with Cosper and the zoo's two other keepers, we too get an insider's look at who's who at the zoo.

The Santa Ana Zoo in Prentice Park (one of several facilities participating in Saturday's Orange County Museum Day 1991, story on Page 10) boasts a collection of 53 monkeys and apes, more than 40 types of birds, animals from South America and a children's petting zoo. The primates dominating the 8-acre spread are the legacy of Joseph E. Prentice, the zoo's benefactor. Prentice donated the property in 1952 on the condition that a large monkey collection be maintained.

While plans for expansion and improvement are under way, the Santa Ana Zoo is the small, old-fashioned type where you find animals in simple cages that can't compete with the elaborate "environments" at larger institutions. But it offers a certain intimacy that larger zoos can't muster.

With cages often just out of reach from the visitor's walkway, the zoo offers a real chance to talk to the animals. It's large and diverse enough to keep young visitors occupied for several hours and small enough to save their parents from exhaustion.

"Whoooooooooooop!"

"That's the gibbons," Cosper says, identifying one of the many calls made by the zoo's most popular two tenants, endangered white-handed gibbons.

In a large cage at one end of the primate exhibit, Mama and her daughter perform noisy acrobatics that attract crowds of spectators. At 39, Mama is one of the oldest living gibbons in captivity, but her age doesn't show as she briskly swings arm over arm across the cage. Natives of Southeast Asia, gibbons are quick enough to catch a bird in flight and these two are eager to prove it.

Nearby is Mama's neighbor, Nero, a black-capped capuchin monkey that clings to the front bars of his cage, stretching to show off a reddish brown-chest. His eyebrows move up and down, up and down, as he inspects a visitor.

"He likes to try to threaten everybody," Cosper says. "He has his three girls to protect." Nero shares his cage with three females, and cruises the front as he tries to fend off prying eyes. He and his crew of north Brazilian monkeys are named after the Franciscan order of Capuchin monks, whose black hoods resemble the peaks of hair on the monkeys' heads. But Nero's hairdo gives him a style that's more hip than holy.

Next door are B.C. and George, a pair of large, silky-haired Colobus monkeys that might be mistaken for oversized skunks--though Cosper considers this an insult. "I hate when people say that," he says dejectedly.

The Colobus aren't born looking like skunks, but by the age of 4 months they lose their short white hair to a black stripe down the back and long white fringe. When they leap through the air, their coats acts as a parachute, giving the appearance of flying.

B.C., the female, races across the cage to inspect a visitor and immediately sticks a black palm through the bars.

"Watch yourself. She'll grab you!" Cosper warns.

Across from B.C. and George you'll find Speck, a young Schmidt's spot-nosed guenon monkey from Uganda that likes to harass and chase his staid, older cage-mates. In a rare moment, he sits still long enough to take a blade of grass from Cosper's hand as a snack.

Nearby, Mimi, a rare red-backed squirrel monkey hangs upside down near her father, Stash. Small and wiry, Mimi lost her mother when she was just a few days old and keepers have raised her. She squeaks at the sight of zookeeper Irma Gonzalez. Until recently, Mimi and Stash were the only red-backed squirrel monkeys in the country. Soon they'll leave Santa Ana for their new home at the Phoenix Zoo.

Lounging in the midst of the monkey exhibits, in a separate lair, are Rocky and Tucson, two full-grown mountain lions, the zoo's only big cats. Now 13, the brother and sister were found orphaned in Arizona. Unlike their primate neighbors, these cats don't eat broccoli for breakfast. Rocky consumes four pounds of horse meat each morning and given a chance, would grab his sister's breakfast too.

In the children's petting zoo, young visitors can hand-feed the pygmy goats--but, please, don't feed Fred, the pot-bellied pig.

"He gets too fat and then he has to go on a diet," explains keeper Irma Coburn. "And that's no fun." Fred looks as if he has already had a few too many forbidden treats.

Coburn scratches Fred's spiky-haired black back and tries to coax him from his warm spot on a straw heap in the corner of a stall. He won't budge. She nudges harder until he rises, groaning and snorting.

"He has a face only a mother could love," Coburn says. "But he's sweet."

In fact, because of the rolls of fat, Fred's face would be hard to distinguish if you didn't spot his tongue lolling between two curved tusks.

Not all the animals have such distinguished names as Nero, Fred and Mimi. The names often reflect physical traits, personality quirks and bits of individual history, but no special effort is made to crown the creatures, says Coburn. Some animals come to the zoo already named while others are never named at all. Most are named only to help the keepers identify and refer to them easily, she says.

Such as when a motherless pygmy goat joined the pen of six look-alike goats, she was called Little Orphan Annie, Coburn recalls.

But the five Australian wallabies, cousins to the kangaroo, are nameless as are most of the zoo's birds, including weaver finches, emus, rheas and black swans.

In some cases, as with the zoo's two West African crowned cranes, they remain unnamed because the keepers can't tell the feathered fellow from the gal.

As for the zoo's pair of bald eagles, the large female is easily distinguished from the smaller male but Gonzalez says they are "so regal, they shouldn't have a name."

Yet, one regal fellow that does have a name is Hernando, the black alpaca that rules the South American exhibit. Proudly surveying the island of scruffy grass he shares with his mate, some rheas and the strange Patagonian cavies, which look like overgrown rabbits, Hernando sniffs the air when a stranger calls his name. Curious and intelligent, Hernando notices when his keeper wears sunglasses or a new winter jacket. A white, wooly beard and a lock of white over his left eye give him a wise look.

But Hernando may not be king for long.

The zoo includes animals from all over the world, but a 10-year master plan has many being phased out (through natural death and relocation to other zoos) to focus the collection on South American species only. So Hernando may eventually be forced to share his empire.

Among the three of them, the zoo's keepers have more than 40 years tenure. And they say that leaving Prentice Park would be like leaving home.

Cosper, who tends the monkeys and apes, summed up the keepers' feelings: "Most of the (animals) are friendly. After a while, they're kind of like family."

What: The Santa Ana Zoo.

When: Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last visitors admitted at 4 p.m. Closed Christmas and New Year's Day.

Where: 1801 E. Chestnut Ave., Santa Ana.

Whereabouts: From the south, take the Santa Ana Freeway, exit at First Street and turn left at Elk Lane. Continue one block south and turn left into parking lot. From the north, exit at Fourth Street and continue straight into Elk Lane. Turn left into parking lot.

Wherewithal

Admission is $2 for adults and 75 cents for children ages 3 to 12. Children under 3 are admitted free.

Where to call

(714) 836-4000.

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