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Beware of What?!

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Behind a cement block wall at the end of a cul-de-sac in Laguna Hills, a 450-pound alligator can be found in her owner’s frontyard, creeping through the grass and basking in the warm sunlight.

The 8-foot North American alligator named Bonnie has lived there for 20 years, since she and her brother, Clyde, were hatched from eggs on Nick Amodio’s lush half-acre lot. They are among the 57 exotic animals that records show live in Orange County, although authorities suspect hundreds more are kept behind other walls--undocumented, unknown to neighbors, but hopefully not unbound.

“She’s more like a dog to me than anything else,” Amodio said, casually rubbing his hands under the gator’s jaw and jowls. Bonnie lifted her massive head toward him and closed her eyes, dreamily. “Look at her. . . . She’s just a great big baby.”

Amodio and other exotic animal permit holders say ownership rewards them with an open invitation to the wild kingdom, a chance to connect with a creature they may otherwise see only at a zoo.

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The county’s menagerie of unusual pets includes an African lion, a wallaby, half a dozen monkeys and apes and a red fox. Three hawks, two great horned owls and a bald eagle are among the feathered species.

Officially, there are 235 exotic animals living in Los Angeles County, including spotted leopards, hyenas, an armadillo and a camel.

“It’s quite a collection,” said Lori Heier, who records the permits for the California Department of Fish and Game. “And many of these [animals] are kept as pets and not just for commercial purposes. That always fascinates me.”

A large number of exotics, which the state classifies as “prohibited species,” are permitted for research, rescue or rehabilitation purposes. But many, like Rudy the Lion in Trabuco Canyon, are listed as exhibition animals even though they live as pets with their owners.

The distinction covers those “rare but probable occasions” when the animal is introduced to the public or viewed for educational purposes, officials said.

Howard Ross, who raised Rudy since he was a 6-week-old cub, said the 450-pound lion has indeed been the subject of several local school field trips. But mostly, Ross said, Rudy is a gentle giant that likes to sleep in his owner’s bed and, when he was smaller, enjoyed rides in the car.

The big cat, with paws the size of a human head, strolls through the house whenever Ross is home; otherwise he stays in an elaborately designed cage on the family’s property, an isolated canyon retreat of several hundred acres.

“He’s a real sweetheart,” Ross said. “He’s been raised by a dog and actually has a similar temperament.”

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Ross admits that keeping a lion is not for everyone. Rudy eats hundreds of pounds of meat each week--always out of Ross’s hands--and requires hours of attention every day.

“When you see lions at the zoo pacing back and forth, that means they’re bored,” Ross said. “I never let Rudy get bored. But that demands that you spend a tremendous amount of time with him. It’s how he learns what’s acceptable behavior and what’s not.”

While Rudy lives miles from the nearest home, many of the county’s exotic pets share fences with the neighbor next door. Authorities say they usually receive complaints about the animals if there is an escape, which is rare.

Kathy Leary, who lives around the corner from Bonnie and Clyde, said the alligators are well-known in the residential tract but haven’t caused trouble.

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“They don’t bother me,” she said. “Just as long as they don’t use our pool.”

Some officials, however, say those who own exotic animals for personal enjoyment create potential problems for authorities assigned to protect the public from unlawful critters, as well as animals from cruel handlers.

After years of rescuing llamas and pigs from unsuitable homes and chasing loose monkeys through schoolyards, some animal control officials express open disdain for exotic pet owners, permitted or not.

“My experience is that most people who keep wild animals have them as a vanity pet, for their own ego, not for the benefit of the animal,” said Joy Lingenfelter, a Laguna Beach animal control officer. “Eventually, if the amusement factor wears off, the pets get abandoned. We find pigs and goats and all kinds of animals tied to parking meters with notes around their necks.”

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Even so, Lingenfelter concedes, there are exceptions.

Some exotic pet owners have held permits for years, surviving strict annual inspections by state and county officials and promptly paying renewal fees of up to $250 to keep their animals legal, she said.

Grant Ostapeck, for example, has had a permit for more than a decade for Cee Cee, a 19-year-old crested macaque from Indonesia who traded a career in monkey show business for the pampered care of Ostapeck’s family in Lake Forest.

In that time, Cee Cee has become somewhat of an attraction in the residential neighborhood, squawking at neighbors from a birch tree in the frontyard and generously passing out hugs to curious children.

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Having a pet monkey is much like “having a permanent 2-year-old in the house,” said Ostapeck, who inherited Cee Cee from his wife, an animal trainer who passed away several years ago.

“She has a surprising number of human traits,” he said. “If you scold her, she’ll squawk at you a little. She laughs when you tickle her feet. If she’s embarrassed, she covers her face with her hands.”

She also sips apple juice from cups, watches TV and has temper tantrums when her tether restricts her from going where she wants.

“She brings a lot of laughter to our home,” Ostapeck said. “We wouldn’t trade her for the world.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

What a Zoo!

You’ll find more than the normal assortment of pets scattered throughout Orange County. The local feathers-and-fangs set includes everything from an elephant to a clawed frog. Here are some of the more exotic locals. Can you identify any of them? Answers listed below

1. Wallaby

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2. Kinkajou

3. Macaque

4. Serval

5. Kestrel

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Sources: California Department of Fish and Game, Orange County Animal Control

Researched by BONNIE HAYES / Los Angeles Times


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