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A Lesson in Animal Magnetism

September 17, 1997|LISA FERNANDEZ

It was hard to tell which wild creature the children at Simi Valley's Knolls Elementary School liked more. There was Francisco, the red-tail boa from Mexico; Shmoo, the California sea lion; and Puppy, the carnivorous turkey vulture, who preys on dead animals.

But when pressed, several students said they thought Rosie, a 35-pound olive baboon from Africa, was their favorite.

"He looks the most like us," said fifth-grader Tiffany Whitham.

It was clear by the gasps and laughter Tuesday that the elementary children were fascinated with the animals that came to school as part of their morning assembly.

The show was presented by Moorpark College's two-year vocational program in exotic animal training and management, which is offered to community college students who have an interest in wildlife nutrition, fund-raising, veterinary procedures and the study of animal behavior.

Many of the program's graduates go on to be zookeepers or animal trainers and become involved in education or the movie industry, said Mara Rodriguez, a program instructor.

The presenters, who perform in Ventura, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties about once a week, begin their shows by reminding their audiences that it is illegal to take exotic animals out of the wild and that these furry and feathered friends must never be taken home to be cuddled.

"We never hint that these animals make good pets," Rodriguez said. She added that most of the animals used in the shows are abandoned pets, including many of the reptiles and birds, or were rescued, such as Theresa, a 4-month-old opossum, and Shmoo, a beached sea lion.

Among the other animals, all of which are kept at the college zoo when they are not performing, were a blue-and-gold macaw whose beak is strong enough to break a broomstick, a 23-year-old kinkajou that can reverse its ankles to climb down a tree headfirst, and a spotted serval that can run 35 mph.

The point of the shows is to educate children about animals they may never have seen, Rodriguez said.

As an example, one presenter described a turkey vulture's eating habits.

Puppy's red-topped head is featherless so he can dunk it deep into the raw flesh of a dead animal, the presenter told the enraptured--and slightly grossed-out--roomful of students.

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