On safari at the L.A. Zoo

Snakes aren't slimy, bearded dragons aren't mean and, at least in L.A., a rhinoceros can get a decent pedicure.

For animal lovers, critter chatter is endlessly entertaining, and every year at this time, members of the Safari Society restock the warehouse. Last night's Sunset Safari at the zoo covered 15 exhibits and habitats where keepers dished about their charges and, where liability policy allowed, made them available for tactile introductions.

It's an exercise to ensure that the L.A. Zoo's most generous supporters keep current about its efforts to support and conserve biodiversity. It raises consciousness about what's happening to make the world safer for animals who won't survive, much less survive thrive, without human intervention.

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Among the 577 people who took the safari were 100 children. They made acquaintance with, among others, Randa, the greater one-horned rhinoceros. Also known as an Indian rhinoceros, Randa is the largest of her species. These rhinos can top out at 4,500 pounds, but Randa weighs somewhat less, having been deprived of her horn, which was removed in 2007 when the tissue underneath was diagnosed as cancerous.

After radiation and chemotherapy, Randa was declared cancer-free in 2009, and is doing well, bearing only the pink scars that are a side effect of her treatment. And, in a surprise even to her minders, her horn grew back. Sort of. It's a stubby little thing, but indicative of her tenacity -- at 45, she's the oldest rhinoceros in captivity, and aiming for the all-time record of 47.

Her keepers, including Elaine Chu, enable her endurance. Chu said Randa gets luxurious baths, shea butter skin treatments and regular pedicures.

Alicia Mooradian got all wrapped up in Audrey the Angolan python, and no wonder -- she (Audrey) doesn't need cosmetic enhancement to beautify her skin, a lovely beaded wardrobe that feels like silk.

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Depending on whom you ask, there are 12 to 40 python species, the largest of which are as long as two-and-a-half stories are high. But Audrey is a member of a smaller python family, which grows to about 6 feet. She won't get there; at about 4 years old, she's full grown.

Elmo, too, is a more diminutive representative of his species. The three-banded armadillo comes from South America. At 12, Elmo, too, is full grown, and is a much cuter version of the Texan armadillos most of us generally recognize only as highway road kill.

Related to sloths and anteaters, three-banded armadillos are the only ones of their species capable of rolling into a tight sphere, leaving none of their vulnerable bits exposed to danger. Elmo, clearly a mellow dude on this night, remained perfectly upright, so visitors could only imagine that, sometimes, he looked less like a martial mammal and more like a honkin' big roly poly bug.

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File this under gee whiz: Armadillo headplates are as unique to individual animals as fingerprints are to individual humans.

The vanilla-colored bearded dragon looks like an elongated horned toad from the Mojave Desert that got tossed into the laundry's bleach load. In fact, the zoo's resident dragon, Aussie, hails from northern Australia. She puffs out her black chin (hence, the "beard") when feeling threatened, but it's all a ruse -- she's a puppy dog, to mix a four-legged metaphor, whose beard is worse than her bite.

And whose bite, when it comes to lunch, isn't particularly picky. Bearded dragons are omnivores, and given their antipodean roots, are among the select demographic who actually think Vegemite tastes good.

Bird-eating spiders. Is there a creepier concept on the planet? What did their designer have against air travelers and anybody with eyes?

Be glad the photo flash malfunctioned during the safari, be glad this page does not depict their 10-inch leg span, be glad these things live in the South American rainforest, where they eat insects, snakes, frogs, rats and bats. And maybe birds; zookeepers speculate that their moniker was bestowed by a freaked-out (my word) naturalist. Still.

At the zoo, they dine weekly on crickets and mice, proffered via tongs.

To humans, bird-eating spider venom is not lethal. Who cares? Two words: inch-long fangs.

Dwarf caimans also live in the rainforest, but compared with the spiders, they're as cuddly as a kitten. To mix a four-legged metaphor. Caimans are a sub-species of crocodile, which can be distinguished from alligators by their dental records. Crocs have an external fourth tooth on their lower jaw; gators don't.

The zoo's caiman contingent last night was a few three-footers ignoring the fish heads their waiters had served earlier in the evening. Apparently, if you are a caiman, gawking humans are enough to put you off your food. Or maybe you're just too dumb to find it on the bottom of the pool.

Uh uh, said keeper Jeromy Chenault, who tried unsuccessfully to hide the offense he'd taken at the suggestion that reptiles were somewhat slower than other species on the scale of swift.

At Disney's Animal Kingdom, he claimed, caimans were taught to respond to their names, and were able to move to an assigned spot for feeding purposes. We didn't ask if they could sit or roll over, but couldn't help asking about the value of such behavior, and whether it was more of a circus trick than a useful practice.

This is when you learn the lesson of prejudice. The caimans, Chenault made clear, were taught these behaviors not to perform, but to survive. Although such captive creatures might not require it, scientists and naturalists need to know the capabilities of animals, what they can do and learn in order to be more successful residents of their native habitats. You build a body of knowledge, then you apply it. And in that way, hope to make a more sustainable, diverse ecosystem.

It's a small world, after all.

Photos: Ellen Alperstein

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