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Zan Thompson

Babies: It's All Happening at the Zoo

February 22, 1987|ZAN THOMPSON

Spring came early to the Los Angeles Zoo. Maybe it was the mild weather, not at all like winter. Five animal pairs decided that they would succumb to the soft murmur of the breezes through the trees and now there are baby animals in five enclosures.

"Spring is the most glorious time of the year at the zoo because you can see the payoff of all the hard work when you go down and see a new life, a healthy baby," said Warren Thomas, the zoo director. Thomas makes Dr. Doolittle seem like a crotchety old do-nothing.

Thomas does not get overly sentimental about the animals, but he speaks of them as friends and with deep respect.

One of the most endearing newcomers is a baby chimpanzee who was too young to have a name. His mother is Pandora, who was born at the Los Angeles Zoo and raised in the nursery. Her mother was a fluffy-minded chimp who would not take the responsibility of a baby. In spite of having no experience with watching a chimp female go about her maternal chores, Pandora is a "first-class mama." This is her third baby and she has done a good job on all of them.

"This is one of the nicest groups of chimps I have ever known," Thomas said.

The most exciting newcomer for the zoo is one in the woolly monkey family. It has always been the most popular monkey and the most recognizable. It is second only to the Capuchin, the little fellow who has spent generations performing with organ grinders and doffing his hat for pennies.

The woolly monkey was almost undone by his charm. "Because he is a bigger, showy monkey and because he is so friendly and genial, he became a favorite pet," Thomas said.

Because so many of them were pets before they came to the zoo, they won't breed in captivity. They don't know if they're part of the human family or if they're monkeys.

Slowly, zoo people began to realize that their woolly monkey populations were getting older and the South American countries where they were native sensibly refused to export any more. Before, when zoos wanted a new woolly monkey, they simply went to the Indian villages and bought some of their pets.

"When we realized that the woolly monkey was on the way out, we decided to go to work on saving it," Thomas said. "A zoo in Louisville, Ky., was interested, too, and they bought a seven-monkey group from a private breeder in Scotland."

Maybe it was the harsher climate among the crags of Scotland--a male from that group who came to the Los Angeles Zoo had no doubt about his happy role and went at it with a will. He has now fathered a baby with all three producing females. Warren said this generation will go to a third zoo. Then satellite families will be established and careful records will be kept to ensure good genetic diversity.

Another new kid on the block is a zebra and "she's just a nice baby. But she is an endangered species, a Hartman's Mountain zebra from southwest Africa," Thomas said.

And there's a new baby in the capybara compound. These poor things have the worst image problem in the world. They are giant rodents from tropical South America. Actually, they look more like pigs. The mama who had the baby weighs 100 pounds and that's a big rodent. It's nice she has a new baby to show off. Maybe people won't notice that she isn't as pretty as the other new mothers.

The pet of the lot and "very special" is a brand-new spectacle bear. This bear comes from the highland regions of South America, Colombia, Ecuador and northern Peru. The rest of the various kinds of bear are from the northern hemisphere.

This bear has markings on his face, a white circle around each eye, which gives it the name. The reason a new spectacle bear is such an occasion is that the males aren't very good breeders. As soon as a male discovers that's what he is, he is so wowed by his luck that he has no interest in the females. Thomas said, "Our male was somehow able to rise above his narcissus complex and take up with the female."

The female, who was a good mother, had three babies this year. Last year, she had two and when they were first large enough to be on display, she kept them well to the back of her enclosure. When she wanted a drink of water, she had a problem. How to get to the pool without leaving the babies? She solved it by picking them up in her forepaws, standing straight up and walking to the pool. There, she put them behind her, had her drink, scooped them up and walked back upright.

The question this year is how will she transport all three babies at the same time? My money's on the mama. After all, she persuaded that self-besotted male to have a go at it. Now, that's a female who knows how to get it together.

Give yourself a springtime treat. Go to the zoo. The babies are not on display yet but they will be soon.

The new entrance to the zoo is candy-bright and the displays are better than ever. Meet you at the chimp compound. Ask for Pandora.

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