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WILD THINGS : An Urban Bestiary

January 21, 1990|WILLIAM JORDAN and PENELOPE MCMILLAN | Introduction by PENELOPE MCMILLAN. William Jordan is a writer/biologist. His book of essays on animals and humans will be published next fall by North Point Press. Penelope McMillan is a Times staff writer.

BONNIE AND LARRY WOLFE were watching television one evening in their Hollywood Hills living room when a raccoon trotted by, headed toward the kitchen. As the couple looked on in amazement, the beady-eyed intruder marched up to their cat's dish, picked up a piece of food, washed it in the conveniently provided water dish and began to stuff himself. "He knew just where it was," Bonnie Wolfe says, "as if he'd been there before."

And clearly he had. As they watched their uninvited guest depart--out the cat door--it dawned on the Wolfes why, on most mornings, they found a wet kitchen floor and crumbled cat food floating in the water dish.

As with celebrity sightings or traffic horror stories, almost everyone who lives in Southern California has an animal tale, or two, to tell--about skunk invasions, rats in the ivy, ants in the flowerpots, parrots roosting in the sycamore or coyotes howling through Mozart at the Hollywood Bowl. The region may be getting more developed and congested, but somehow countless wild animals have held their ground.

What distinguishes these creatures from domesticated ones, of course, is that they lead a life independent of human beings. But in the city, that line can get blurred. Some animals move away from autonomy toward the easy handout, usually in the form of garbage. But most successful wild things find or retain their niche among us because they are opportunists, adaptable enough to take from civilization, or exist alongside it, on their own terms.

From the animals' point of view, the Los Angeles Basin must seem a Gargantuan cornucopia. The pockets of "natural" resources still left are supplemented by cultivated fruits, nuts and vegetables growing in back yards and perfectly edible refuse from households and restaurants. Excellent real estate is available: nesting sites, sheltering nooks and crannies, swimming pool "lakes," parks, vacant lots and building sites. All of it for the taking, if an animal can live with people--or despite them.

It makes for a sometimes uneasy coexistence. Marvin and Betty Hoffenberg, for example, have been trying for months to discourage a family of deer from denuding their yard in the hills of Pacific Palisades. "They eat not only flowers but the ivy on my hillside," Betty Hoffenberg says. In recent weeks, the deer have grown bold enough to walk on the Hoffenbergs' patio. The couple has tried hanging Ivory soap in the trees and packets of blood meal in the bushes. They have sprinkled the landscape with lion urine given to them by a friend. But, Marvin says, "nothing ever works."

Sometimes the animals get too close for comfort. One winter in the Hollywood Hills, a raccoon looking for a place to raise her young took up residence behind the walls of writer Theo Wilson's third-floor bedroom. "Night after night, all night long, it sounded like they were moving furniture," Wilson says. "Finally one day I was beating on the walls, shouting, 'If you're going to live here, you'd better shut up!' Then I realized, what am I doing yelling at a wall with raccoons in it?"

Under the house, Wilson discovered an opening through which the mother had entered. When this uninvited family departed a few months later, an exhausted Wilson sealed the hole with a grate.

The nearness of wild animals can make us confront the unsavory realities of nature, even while we are trying to be our most civilized. Los Feliz resident Nina Mohi recalls a dinner party that was ruined one beautiful summer night. "We were eating," she says, "when all of a sudden our dog got hold of a skunk. The skunk sprayed him, and the dog killed the skunk.

"One gal was pregnant; she got nauseated and ran upstairs. My husband and her husband couldn't handle it, and they went for a walk. I had house guests, and one of them took off all his clothes, down to just his socks and shorts. I gave him a shovel and a big paper bag, and he put the remains inside. He drove into Griffith Park with it. The neighborhood, everything stunk.

"Nobody stayed for coffee and dessert."

Los Angeles is a new city, as huge cities go. As it evolves, so does the balance between humans and wildlife. Some of the creatures who live among us are newcomers, forced into proximity as we take over previously wide-open spaces. But most have inhabited urban areas for hundreds of years; their ability to live on their own in the cracks of human society makes them almost invisible to us, as if they occupied a parallel universe. The species we notice most often are those big enough, dangerous enough or irritating enough to fit the human notion of nuisance --or they are the ones that simply delight us.

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