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Tamarin Troubles

Taking Them From Aviary Is for the Birds, Critics Say

February 27, 1997|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The two monkeys are so tiny that you could miss them if it weren't for the droopy white mustaches that outline their faces through the jungle-like foliage.

But the palm-size pair of emperor tamarins that live at the Los Angeles Zoo are at the center of a king-size controversy.

The curious-looking animals have been allowed to cavort among zoo visitors for nearly four years. They were removed from their cages for a one-year test to see if small monkeys born in captivity can survive in the open.

The tamarins proved they can. As a reward, they have spent the last three years in the relative freedom of the zoo's lushly landscaped, walk-through aviary.

But now zoo officials plan to yank the monkeys out of the aviary and return them to a cage.

Human safety is the issue, officials say.

Baloney, counter zoo docents who have spent thousands of hours watching over the little monkeys to make certain that visitors do not come too close to them.

Some veteran zoo docents are so angry over what they consider a betrayal of the animals that they say they will resign in protest.

"I'll be very unhappy if I have to leave, but I feel that strongly about it," said docent Barbara Berry, a Mission Hills resident who has worked as a zoo volunteer for four years.

The eviction has also upset zoo patrons--some of whom, docents say, come weekly to watch the monkeys climb trees and swing from branches.

"They're very happy and well-adjusted here. This is much better than a cage," said Lorrie DeYoung, a regular visitor from Hollywood.

Known as emperor tamarins because their white mustaches resemble that worn by Austria's turn-of-the-century Emperor Francis Joseph I, the South American primates are closely related to the marmoset family.

They have been star attractions of the zoo's aviary since they were moved into a huge, netted flight cage in mid-1994.

For a year before that, they lived in trees in an unenclosed section of the zoo. Their stay there was part of a research project to determine whether zoo-bred tamarins from the endangered Golden Lion species could be reintroduced to the Brazilian rain forest without being threatened by predators such as hawks.

The female emperor tamarin has been named "Valencia" by zoo workers; the male is named "Hop." The monkeys spend their days climbing on branches and foraging for insects. They ignore the 50 or so birds that fly loose in the exhibit.

Volunteers who monitor the animals while the aviary is open to the public say the 10-year-old tamarins should live out their remaining few years in the miniature jungle.

"I don't think they'll last in a cage," said Lelani Chu, a Glendale resident who has worked 12 years as a docent. "It would be like living in Paris, then going into a closet. It's going to be very difficult for them."

Docents say Hop and Valencia have never harmed people or the zoo's birds. But zoo officials worry the safety record could change. They complain that they have had to close the aviary to the public during periods when the volunteers failed to show up . They say the monkeys might bite if someone tried to pick them up or pet them.

"If the docents could give me assurances they would be here, it would not be a problem," said zoo Director Manuel A. Mollinedo. "The major problem is safety."

Mollinedo said zookeepers had planned to relocate the tamarins by Saturday to a cage in a rear holding area that is out of public view. But workers this week discovered that the cage had been damaged by a falling tree.

"We're not ready to move them yet," Mollinedo said.

Docents, meantime, are studying ways to finance construction of an enclosure next to the aviary that could return the two tamarins to their familiar jungle setting--and back to public view.

But such a net-like enclosure could cost as much as $15,000 to build, according to Bob Barnes, the zoo's curator of mammals.

As for zoo visitors, they are hurrying to get a final look at the monkeys.

"They certainly get to have a lot of fun here," said Kristi McWhorter, 18,a CalArts student from Valencia who came to sketch the animals.

"Certainly a lot more than in a cage."

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