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Up close and personal with California's biggest condor celebrity

January 10, 2009 |  9:56 pm

When you're the undisputed Valentino of your species, it must be hard to keep your ego in check. 

TopaTopa (Topa for short) is a legend among California condors.  When he was found, dazed and injured, in 1967, only 22 of his species existed.  Thanks to Topa's romancing (he's the father of an impressive 21 chicks), the future looks substantially brighter for California condors, whose numbers are now in the neighborhood of 300. 

Topa's earned the right, then, to be a little
-- well -- moodyThe Times' Louis Sahagun explains:

"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...

"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.

Cieni assures Sahagun, though, that she and her colleagues "all have a soft spot in our hearts for him because he's had to overcome so much." 

Topa, who recently celebrated his 43rd birthday, could live into his 70s, biologists say.  Check out Sahagun's story for more info (and a neat video).

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times

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