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Who's Who at the ZOO : Take a closer look at some animals you may have missed.

July 28, 1993|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly 2 million people visit the Los Angeles Zoo each year, but how many of them rush to see the gerenuk? How many crowd around the uakari cage?

Not many.

The lion's share of attention goes to proven crowd-pleasers--animals such as the elephants and chimps and hippos. Others among the zoo's 1,500 creatures lead anonymous lives. Hardly anyone gawks at them. No one remembers their names. They are mere furry beasts and slick reptiles passed along the way.

And with 80 acres of cages and glass tanks, pens and cement pits within the zoo confines, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle.

But the little-known animals can be the most interesting to watch. Below is a list of six that deserve a closer look.

The gorillas are muscular and blockish. The tamarins have fussy manes of black and gold fur. But among the primates, the red uakaris are the most striking.

That is because their narrow faces and bald foreheads burn a bright scarlet. They appear to be very mad or very embarrassed.

Zoologists aren't sure why nature concocted a beast like this. The red face has no apparent link to self-preservation or environment. These endangered monkeys live in the upper Amazon, where they scurry through trees in the tropical swamp forest, foraging for nuts, fruits and insects. Not much else is known about their behavior in the wild.

At the zoo, however, they are pure entertainment.

Cheyenna, the baby, cracks Brazil nuts with her powerful teeth. Flo-Jo, named for track star Florence Griffith-Joyner, races across branches and ropes. Meanwhile, Red plays to the audience.

"When there's a crowd," says keeper Debbie Levy, "he sits out here and threatens people."

Maybe he is mad.

The meerkats take turns atop the tallest rock in their pen. The sentry sits upright with his pointy nose lifted to the sky, his black eyes darting.

He watches for red-tailed hawks or anything else that might swoop down.

Transplanted from the Kalahari Desert, these fuzzy little creatures used to cower at the sight of jets on approach to Burbank Airport. After five years at the zoo, they've learned not to fear the big silver birds.

"But if they see a balloon float by, they'll start screaming and have a big fit," animal keeper Kelley Greene said. "They'll dive into their holes."

The meerkat is a mongoose-like animal and a distant relative to Rudyard Kipling's Rikki Tikki Tavi. It uses long claws and sharp teeth to burrow and to hunt for scorpions and small rodents--basically anything that scurries across the desert floor.

These animals make for interesting viewing because they are highly social, living in a tight-knit group. Moe, the papa, looks after his three sons Groucho, Harpo and Zeppo. They gossip in chatters and whines.

"They sleep on top of each other and groom each other," Greene said. "They're tight as ticks."

Some people love lions. When they come to the zoo, they spend all their time watching the big cats.

"And some people spend all their time looking at reptiles," said Jay Kilgore, the lead keeper at the Reptile House. "But that's not the average visitor."

Indeed, all types of slithery creatures inhabit the rows of glass tanks here. Visitors are greeted by Baby--a boa that looks big enough to swallow a Toyota. It's a formidable sight.

Mr. B, an emerald tree boa, is not nearly so large but just as deadly. This South American snake is a high-tech eating machine, its mouth lined with tiny heat sensors that detect the presence of small animals and birds that wander too close.

And if the snake looks dangerous, Kilgore said, all the better. "People like to be horrified."

Or disgusted. Which explains the attraction of Bumps, a White's tree frog who is bulbous and slimy and far more colorful than his name implies.

He hails from the tropical forests of Australia and New Guinea, where his vibrant green skin and copper eyes blend with the scenery. Like the boa, he eats small animals. Bumps, however, is not a frightening predator.

"He'll grab anything that walks his way," Kilgore said. "He can't run after it. It has to walk right in front of him."

Pencil-thin legs and a frail body. A long, sloping neck. The gerenuks are painfully delicate.

Such anatomy makes these "gazelle-giraffes" graceful and beautiful to watch. It also makes them a poor match for enclosed spaces. They tend to be nervous and, when frightened, have been known to dart into walls and kill themselves.

"That neck," said Robin Noll, a keeper. "It breaks."

So, at the Los Angeles Zoo, the young are raised in the children's area.

"They are exposed to a lot of screaming kids early on," Noll said. "It takes the edge off them."

The half-dozen animals that occupy a grassy area in the African section of the zoo appear calm. If you watch long enough, you'll see one of them raise up to more than six feet on its hind legs, balancing to nibble leaves overhead. It's worth the wait.

Just don't make any loud noises.

If Dr. Seuss had set his mind to creating a zoo animal, he would have come up with the Red River Hog.

Its wide black face narrows to a long snout. Its pointed ears end in splays of white whiskers. Bright stripes mark its rust-red body.

"Look at that," a boy shouted on a recent morning. "What is it?"

Commonly called the African bush pig, this animal grows as large as five feet long and 260 pounds. It likes to root, pushing rocks and trees around in search of insects.

The bush pig has a highly developed sense of smell and swims well. The Los Angeles Zoo has two of them, Togo and Ruby, both of whom are gregarious.

"They like us to scratch them," keeper Robin Parker said.

Unlike other pigs at the zoo, Togo and Ruby won't roll in the mud to cool themselves off. They prefer to have Parker sprinkle them with water from a hose. A Red River Hog, after all, has to keep up appearances.

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