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Zan Thompson

Hogging the Spotlight at the L.A. Zoo

January 31, 1988|Zan Thompson

Please, somebody, ask me why the shoelaces in my second-best Reeboks are stiff and unmanageable and missing one tip. The answer is wart hog saliva. Really.

I made one of my periodic visits to the Greater Los Angeles Zoo the other day because it restores me. I always see something new, get to know something fresh about an animal, see that animals are wise, naughty, impatient, enduring, resourceful, patient, restless and curious in just about the same proportion as we are.

I saw the wart hogs because they are Dr. Warren Thomas' favorite animal. He is the director of the Los Angeles Zoo, a warm and vital man whose enthusiasm for his charges is contagious.

Russ Smith, a senior animal keeper, was going to show me the new baby gorillas and Warren called after us, "Be sure and see the baby wart hogs." Well, sure, what else would you want to do on a bright January day other than see wart hogs? They were darling. I grant you that the adult wart hog is so ugly he's a joke. I think God made about 10 different antelopes, delicate, graceful and exquisite, and then he thought: "Well, enough sweetness and grace. I'm going to whomp up a real rouser."

Russ took me to the barn, where we had the great good luck to arrive at feeding time. Diane Mangalin is the wart hogs' keeper and staunch advocate. She had five of the little animals behind a half-door enclosure, and she carried a rack with five nursing bottles.

First, Diane lifted out Minnie, the runt, so she'd be sure to get hers before her enthusiastic siblings slurped her out of the way. When they were younger, she could walk right under the stomachs of her brothers and sisters. They are now 3 months old and are Hugo, Billy, Marcia, Pearl--and Minnie.

Diane fed Minnie and then fed the other four at once. They have to line up according to plan so no one will be left out and they all drink at once while Diane holds the four bottles in two hands.

Minnie discovered my feet and began to chew the shoelaces. Then a couple of the boys found Russ' feet and began to munch and slobber. All you have to do is push them away. Of course, they come right back. There was a piece of plywood propped against the wall and one of them discovered this dandy tunnel to play in. They all trooped in and out, having a fine time. Diane says they have bitten clear through her sneakers and that they are born with razor-sharp tusks.

"It's their only protection. They slash sideways with their heads."

At this age, they already have the coarse manes down the tops of their necks that will get much wirier and coarser. They have tiny, black, delicate, pointed hoofs and they run around on tiptoe like a corps de ballet. I loved them.

The newest exhibit at the marvelous zoo is the meerkat group. Their spacious natural habitat was the gift of Alice Tyler, a distinguished friend of the zoo. These tiny animals are from the southwest African desert. They weigh about 1 1/2 pounds and are, as Russ told me, "very colonial animals." That means they like to hang out together and if one runs to climb a log, they all run to climb it. They stand on their hind legs, sitting perfectly flat and straight on their haunches, helped by their tails to brace themselves.

A group of schoolchildren came to look at them and the meerkats all ran to the edge of their playground, getting as close as possible to their visitors. When the children left, they looked at each other as if to say "Hey, where'd everybody go?"

The trio of baby snow leopards I saw in July are now smart-aleck seventh-graders. They stalk each other. One crouched behind a too-small log, holding perfectly still with that "Nyah, nyah, you can't see me" look. Then he streaked across the compound and swatted his brother's tail and was promptly swatted in return.

Birdie Foster is the keeper who raised these gorgeous hellions and spent extra time on the one she was going to auction off at the Beastly Ball. He showed so well, was so gentle and endearing, thanks to Birdie's care, that he was adopted for a comfortable sum, ensuring him and his brothers three meals a day for life. I think mother was disappointed. She thought "animal adoption" meant the benefactors would take the little imp home with them. No luck. Right back into the cage like Cinderella as soon as the Beastly Ball was over.

The Children's Zoo is being laid out and planned so that it will be the finest in the world. Across a canal will be Adventure Island. There will be exhibits where the children can be part of the animals' world. There will be talking screens that explain how each animal lives, eats, moves, establishes its family and lives with its neighbors.

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