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Quite the condor conversion

Topa the California condor was a wreck when rescuers found him in 1967. Now, after learning how to mate, he's sired 21 chicks since 1993 -- the father of a new generation for his endangered species.

January 11, 2009|Louis Sahagun

He was found dazed in a mountain bush in 1967, hanging upside down with an injured wing and smelling like rotten fish -- a rare male California condor, a fledgling member of a nearly extinct species.

He was a wreck, and the ornithologists who found him in a canyon north of Ojai speculated that he was also emotionally troubled. Yet Topatopa, named for the mountain range where he was found, was whisked away to the Los Angeles Zoo in the hope that his species, whose numbers had dwindled to a mere 22, could find survival in captivity.

Topa, as he is known for short, lived alone in a cage for the next 20 years, devoid of the socialization needed to learn the basics of condor life. As a teenager, he courted tree stumps and tufts of grass and tried to mate with sticks and rocks. His first encounter with a female was disastrous. He didn't know what to do. She beat him to a pulp.

All that changed when he was paired with Malibu, a mature and aggressive female California condor hatched in captivity at San Diego Wild Animal Park. Malibu was determined to make a man out of him. When Topa started strutting his stuff to inanimate objects, Malibu scooted underneath the tail feathers of his 3-foot-tall frame. Over time, Topa got the hang of it.

Now he is a legend among condors -- virile and strong, the father of a new generation. This year, the condor who has spent his entire life shielded from the public and highly protected behind chain-link fences celebrates his 43rd birthday. Like Seabiscuit -- the pot-bellied, bow-legged racehorse who overcame his weaknesses to become a champion and a stud -- Topa embodies the underdog myth for raptor specialists and condor enthusiasts.

His stud book has become legendary: 21 chicks sired since 1993. "He came in as a fledgling and went from 1967 to 1982 without seeing a female of his species -- you know what that could do to a human male," mused Noel Snyder, retired field biologist and former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's condor recovery team. "He was terribly screwed up behaviorally."

Topa's improbable story continues to lift the spirits of his keepers at the zoo, where he and Malibu share serene digs furnished with perches and nesting boxes and bristling with closed-circuit surveillance cameras.

Topa and Malibu, along with 17 other California condors housed in separate enclosures at the zoo, "are pampered, have great medical plans and enjoy meals of rats, rabbits and horse meat served up the way they like them, fresh," said Susie Kasielke, curator of birds.

In his 43rd year, Topa has aroused renewed interest among people who have crossed paths with the strange spectacle from the Pleistocene Age of a million years past -- a 25-pounder with a bald, pinkish head, red-ringed amber eyes, rich brown-black plumage set off by a snow-white lining on the underside of his 9 1/2 -foot wingspan and a razor-sharp beak for tearing flesh. A few people have the scars to prove it.

Take sculptor Orson J. Morgan, who was among the first to artistically capture Topa when he entered the bird's cage with graphite pencils and a sketchbook on a sunny day in 1970. His renderings were to be used to produce brass sculptures of what was then the only California condor in captivity.

"I turned my back on the bird, which was about 5 years old with a 5-foot wingspan at the time," he recalled. "Topa hopped off his perch, walked over and pulled hard on my pant leg, knocking me to the ground. He's strong as a bulldog."

For a brief period in the late 1970s and early '80s, federal wildlife authorities practiced condor handling techniques by tangling with Topa.

"He is a fighter. Really tough," said Jesse Grantham, California condor coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We had to watch out for his beak. It was like being in a cage with a ferocious gorilla. We wondered, 'What if it bites us in the face?' "

Topa, who never did warm up to humans, remains a quirky bird. His zookeepers, Mike Clark and Debbie Cieni, described him as "a lovable nerd."

"He's a matured, successful and well-adjusted nerd -- kind of like billionaire Bill Gates," Clark said, studying a bank of television monitors whose screens were filled with images of captive condors.

Each one wore a white shoulder patch emblazoned with an identification number. Topa is No. 1.

"The numbers of chicks he's sired speak for themselves," Clark said. "Topa and Malibu are the most successful breeding pair of condors at the zoo."

"He's also still very aggressive," Cieni added. "If there's an emergency in his enclosure -- a broken pipe, or a camera out of whack, or whatever -- we send in a group of three. One person to fix the problem and two to protect the fixer.

"But we all have a soft spot in our hearts for him because he's had to overcome so much."

Today, Topa is one of 81 California condors in the state and 322 on the planet. Some of his offspring soar over the Grand Canyon, Ventura County and Baja California. Others are in captive breeding programs.

Condor recovery programs, however, have made the majestic scavengers reliant on humans for food free of contamination from lead ammunition. Condors born and bred in captivity and released into the wild must frequently be trapped, then tested and treated for lead poisoning.

Biologists believe Topa could live into his 70s.

John C. Borneman, 78, who was the National Audubon Society's California condor warden when he and fellow raptor expert Fred Sibley captured Topa and took him to the zoo, could not be prouder of the bird's accomplishments.

All it took was a little romance, he said. As for Topa's wicked temper, he added: "When you get old, you get a little crotchety. But he still has an eye for the chicks."

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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