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Masked Critters Find Zoo a Treat

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The wildest Halloween trick-or-treating tonight won’t be in Los Angeles’ suburbs. It won’t be at any of the trendy costume parties at Marina del Rey, or among the costumed revelers parading through West Hollywood, either.

The Los Angeles Zoo is where masked visitors will be going door-to-door looking for treats and dispensing tricks--whether or not residents willingly hand over goodies.

The doors lead to animal cages. The masked intruders are a hardy band of raccoons that live in the zoo and roam freely at night, stealing food from other animals and from humans’ trash cans.

Zoo officials say about 60 other creatures have similarly distinctive facial coloring. But the raccoons will be the ones filled with the most devilishness.

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They’ll be emptying trash cans and trying to break into the zoo’s snack bars. They’ll be trying to sneak into the tiger’s cage to get a taste of his food--without becoming tiger food themselves.

“They love candy. They have a real sweet tooth,” said Bill Foster, a principal animal keeper who has observed the zoo’s wild raccoons for 27 years. “A lot of yummies get thrown out around here. And they aren’t afraid to look for them.”

Zoo workers remember the day when a raccoon climbed into a bear pit and attracted the attention of a 7-foot Kodiak bear.

Horrified workers figured the huge bear would gobble the raccoon in a single gulp. “But when the bear leaned down to sniff at it, the raccoon bit him on the nose,” Foster recalls. “The Kodiak turned and ran.”

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Most of the other 20 species of masked zoo animals are shy creatures, however. They rely on their facial coloring to help them blend into background vegetation so they can hide from their enemies, officials say.

Frightened-looking, huge eyes peer suspiciously from behind the black mask of the South American spectacled owl when strangers approach. A pair of stripe-faced badgers named Gunpowder and Buckshot hide behind rocks when visitors get too close. Penguins that sport black masks around their eyes and nose duck into burrows when keepers enter their enclosure.

Other masked animals on display include the Arabian oryx, meerkat, pale-headed saki, pronghorn, white-cheeked gibbon, ring-tailed lemur, red river hog, coatimundi, red panda, sloth bear and the sable antelope.

Zoo officials say the Gabon viper snake uses its eye mask to cut down on the sun’s glare as it slithers through West African grasslands. Other animals use their facial markings to attract mates.

But the mischievous raccoon probably uses his mask as a burglar’s disguise.

More than a dozen wild raccoons hide out in burrows near the hippopotamus enclosure until dusk, when their nightly trick-or-treating begins. Countless others spend the day under cover elsewhere in the zoo’s lush landscaping and brushy areas in adjoining Griffith Park.

But officials say they went outside to get the two raccoons they have on display in the zoo’s “North America” area, even though animal keepers some mornings find uninvited wild raccoons visiting in the enclosure.

On Wednesday, Clyde, one of five raccoons kept in the separate children’s zoo, begged for peanuts and tried to pick the pocket of 6-year-old visitor Miguel Gaspar. Miguel decided that’s Clyde’s mask was cute, not scary.

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But Miguel wasn’t interested in wearing a raccoon costume when he goes trick-or-treating tonight in his Boyle Heights neighborhood.

“I’m going to dress up as a pumpkin,” he said. “My mask is orange. And it’s plastic.”


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