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Eerie Time at the Zoo : After the Sun Sets, It Is a Strange, Rugged Jungle of Fears

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo; I do believe it, I do believe it’s true. . . .”

--Simon and Garfunkel

Like a character in a late-night horror movie, Michael Dee crept into the cave until his face was obscured in the darkness. He gestured toward a fissure in the wall--a narrow alcove where small winged creatures fluttered wildly, swarming on the damp ceiling.

“Blood lappers,” Dee said.

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He fell silent, as if heeding unholy spirits or some ancient Transylvanian curse. But tonight the vampire bats would cause no harm. One gnarled-looking specimen crawled toward a saucer of cow’s blood, fresh from a nearby slaughterhouse--the only food the vampires get at the Los Angeles Zoo.

“That’s all they eat,” said Dee, the zoo’s curator of mammals. “Blood.”

Moving on, Dee and his colleague, zoo spokeswoman Lora LaMarca, emerged from the cave near a roaring waterfall. Night had worked its magic on the landscape. Unlike the idyllic, sun-washed playground that draws 1.8 million visitors a year, the zoo at night is strange and menacing: a rugged jungle of fears, inky shadows and things that go bump in their cages.

Towering eucalyptus trees loomed like dark sentinels. A few scattered arc lights turned high shrubs and boulders into fantastic, beastly shapes. Empty roads twisted and disappeared under black canopies of vegetation. Down those roads lay all variety of unseen terrors--lions, snakes, gorillas, everything but the Hound of the Baskervilles.

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“It’s spooky,” said nighttime security guard Eric Burl,29, who has worked here a year, wielding his flashlight on foot paths where spiders spin colossal webs. “In your mind you think, ‘I wonder if there’s anybody in that bush behind me?’ ”

Not likely. Except for rare summer “Night Safari” tours, the nocturnal zoo is all but deserted of humankind.

Still, on 113 acres of grounds, there is abundant room for paranoia. At night, when the zoo is closed, the nocturnal animals emerge to feed and frolic. Some--like the bats, ring-tailed cats and barn owls--are residents here; others, drawn by the prospect of food, come down from the surrounding hillsides of Griffith Park, rustling through the brush.

The invaders include coyotes, skunks, raccoons, rabbits, opossums and wild birds. Even lost transients sometimes find their way in. As yet, none of these wayward Homo sapiens has fallen into the food chain, but animal fights do break out, sometimes to the death, Dee said, as he showed off his workplace one recent night.

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Coyotes have killed flamingos; jaguars have killed skunks. “We know there’s been a bobcat seen in the general vicinity,” Dee added as his motorized cart glided beneath overhanging limbs. “And there’s even been a mountain lion.”

Only one animal keeper is usually here at night: Natalie White, whose work is considered vital. She runs the nursery, a low building that contains kitchen facilities and barn-like stalls, where she feeds baby animals that are endangered or unable to get nourishment from their mothers. White has been on the night shift since the zoo opened 25 years ago.

On this occasion, her brood featured three baby wart hogs, two domestic goats, a Chinese water deer, a desert big-horned sheep and a 3-day-old gerenuk--a spindly, prong-horned animal from the bush of northern Kenya.

The wart hogs, scarcely 2 months old, were typical of the babies; they were here because the mother had become aggressive, killing one of the offspring.

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White heated plastic baby bottles of their synthetic formula in a microwave, then entered the stall to allow all three swine to feed at once. The two larger animals ate with typical wart hog zeal, snorting loudly. The smaller animal fed for a moment, knocked its bottle to the ground and bit White’s arm.

“Ouch!” she said.

Wart hogs grow rapidly, reaching sexual maturity at 18 months and topping out at nearly 250 pounds. But Rosie, the smallest of these, was what zoo keepers call a “non-thriving” animal, one that eats and grows poorly, even with special care.

“It will absolutely break our hearts if we lose her,” White said as she tried to feed the tiny animal. “We’ve never lost a wart hog.”

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A few days later, despite her efforts, the young animal died.

On this visit, no representatives of endangered species were in White’s care, although she sometimes looks after such animals as part of the Los Angeles Zoo’s broader mission to help the creatures survive.

The zoo currently displays--and helps to breed--at least 50 types of endangered animals, from mountain gorillas and California condors to sloth bears and Galapagos tortoises.

In fact, the zoo is one of about 140 zoos in North America that cooperate in exchanging and breeding endangered species, using detailed “stud books” to chart family trees and maintain genetic diversity. The arrangement treats virtually all zoo stock as part of a common pool, from which animals are mated according to age, genetic makeup and other factors, said Karen Asis of the Maryland-based American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, which coordinates the effort.

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“If the L.A. Zoo has a rhinoceros that . . . needs to be bred with an animal in Cincinnati, the animal will be sent there,” Asis said. “I might send my gorilla to another zoo for several years. And we may have an arrangement where the offspring are divided between two zoos.”

The revolutionary approach has enabled some endangered species--such as Brazil’s golden lion tamarin--to return to the wild.

“The whole idea of what zoos are all about has changed dramatically,” said LaMarca.

At the L.A. Zoo, where rare condor eggs are kept under electronic surveillance at night, Dee has been especially involved in working with endangered rhinos. After the baby animal feedings, he and LaMarca boarded their cart for a trip to the rhinoceros pens--a short journey shrouded in blackness.

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Gorillas and meat-eating animals were locked up for the night, Dee said, but other creatures roamed in open-air pens. Two elephants were barely visible--one lying down, the other standing guard. Dee recalled a story about a woman who sneaked into a zoo one night in Zurich, Switzerland, many years ago.

“The elephants not only stomped on her, but they ate her,” he said. All that remained were a leg and a handbag. “Really unusual,” Dee called it, because elephants are usually strict vegetarians.

The vehicle rolled on. LaMarca uttered occasional forebodings. “Michael, I can’t tell a rock from a rhino,” she said as she rounded a dark curve.

Finally, Dee found Rhonda, a two-ton Indian rhino that has given birth to three calves at the zoo. The usual gestation period, he said, is a year and four months. Newborns weigh in at upward of 120 pounds.

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Dee first played midwife to a rhinoceros birth nine years ago--a predawn event that followed three days of labor. The courtship of the beasts is even more remarkable. When the rhinos are in heat, zookeepers arm themselves at night with klieg lights and hoses--in case the mating pair must be separated.

“Their breeding behavior,” said LaMarca, “is a little vicious.”


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