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JUNGLE LOOK : Animals of the Neotropics Are Happening at the Santa Ana Zoo

August 26, 1993|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

The male and female capybaras recently acquired by the Santa Ana Zoo are not only excellent swimmers, they're also pretty sharp cookies when it comes to real estate.

The capybaras, which look something like buffed-out guinea pigs (their species represents the largest rodents in the world), are taking advantage of Orange County's soft real estate market to move up to luxurious new digs. Dubbed Amazon's Edge, their custom home features a large free-form pool, lush tropical landscaping and a 20-foot waterfall. Not to mention all the raw sweet potatoes they can eat.

The capybaras will share good fortune (although probably not their snacks) with a few of their South American neighbors: two black howler monkeys, three black-cap capuchin monkeys, a half dozen lesser Brazilian teal and a pair of black neck swans.

Amazon's Edge will be open to the public beginning Wednesday. Zoo admission will be free that day.

As the first new exhibit to be built at the 41-year-old zoo in more than 15 years, Amazon's Edge marks the beginning of a 10-year, 10-phase plan that is designed to transform the zoo's smallish mixed-bag collection to a neotropic zone emphasizing South American species. New exhibits are planned to open every two to three years.

When the transformation is complete, zoo officials expect their facility to be the only one in the United States to interpret the neotropics this extensively. Planned exhibits include a Patagonian area with Magelian penguins, a tropical cloud forest village with spectacled bears and two tropical lowland forest areas. Enhanced animal health-care facilities, visitor services and educational facilities are also anticipated. Zoo outreach programs, including children's classes and in-park demonstrations, will be gradually expanded to reflect the new theme.

Amazon's Edge, situated near the main entrance and the children's playground, is a definite departure from the metal cages the zoo has used in the past. A winding path leads visitors into a large open-sided thatched hut, where they will have a view of a tropical grassland setting. A wide, shallow pool fed by a cascading waterfall awaits the capybaras and waterfowl, and at the rear, three tall, leafless trees have been erected for the primates. Dotting the landscape is lush vegetation and large imitation boulders conveniently flattened on top for sunbathing.

According to Connie Sweet, the zoo's curator of animals, the best part of the new exhibit is its ability to give viewers a more accurate picture of the way these creatures live and interact in the wild.

"The biggest thing, once the exhibit is up and running the way it is designed to run, is that we'll have five species exhibited at the same time," Sweet said. "That will give (visitors) a better idea of the interrelationship of the animals.

"They don't exist alone in the natural world; they're almost always either in competition or in cahoots with something else."

For example, Sweet said, although visitors may expect the two species of monkeys to act similarly, each has a distinct style, especially at mealtime. Howler monkeys, which tend to eat large quantities of food at one time, will often be seen resting and digesting, while capuchins, which forage on and off throughout the day, tend to remain more active. Keepers will also hide small treats throughout the exhibit to help keep the animals occupied and to provide psychological stimulation.

Whereas the monkeys will play or lounge in the trees overhead, the capybaras may be found swimming or diving in the pond below.

Capybaras "are excellent swimmers, almost amphibious; they're never found far from the water," Sweet said. "They even dive into the water for protection, which is something they do in play sometimes, too. In a traditional exhibit, they might just have a little pond that they'd just go and sit in."

As landscape workers put the finishing touches on Amazon's Edge on a recent morning, the capybaras--a 4-month old male and a year-old female--rested in their off-exhibit home, a concrete structure with indoor and outdoor pens, a kitchen and a keepers' office area. The compact, coarse-haired animals were purchased from zoos in Delaware and Wisconsin and arrived in Santa Ana several weeks ago.

The exhibit's waterfowl were purchased from the San Diego Zoo and other zoos, but the monkeys were already in-house, taken from the 18 species of primates in the Santa Ana Zoo's collection. But, according to zoo director Ron Glazier, whether new arrival or old-timer, each of the Amazon's Edge residents will require a great deal of time and human care to adjust to its new surroundings.

"You can't just take them out and throw them in the exhibit," Glazier said. "There are so many new sights and sounds and smells . . . they need time to get used to this."

Visitors can help the animals become comfortable in their new home, Glazier said.

"The important thing is to remember the dignity of the animal," he said. "They're here for people to enjoy and learn from. Watch them quietly. If you're making a lot of noise, the animals are focused on you . . . and you won't be able to see what they're all about."

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