Crazy for Christmas

Tired of a traditional holiday? Try opening presents with an elephant or playing a game of Ba-Da-Bingo!

"It's the least we could do," says Sister Betty of the pornographic cell-phone call. "A little Sisterly charity for a poor soul stuck at the top of the world."

"It's all about giving," says Susan Duong, who chose to let the Sisters keep her bingo winnings. "And laughing."

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence's holiday 
installment of Ba-Da-Bingo!
Paul Trapani
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence's holiday installment of Ba-Da-Bingo!

"Tallulah hoards everything," explains chimpanzee keeper Francesca Fazio. "She's the dominant female, and she doesn't like to share."

Even before the San Francisco Zoo's holiday festival, Joy to the Animals, has begun, Tallulah is plotting, pushing her nose up against the window and watching her keeper's movements with a greedy eye. When the chimps are finally allowed outside, Tallulah completely ignores the burlap stockings hanging from the jungle gym; she makes a beeline for the Christmas tree, where she yanks every piece of red licorice from the boughs.

"She has a real sweet tooth," says Fazio. "She'll get ahold of something she's not supposed to have and she'll barter with the keepers for sweets. This is her favorite time of year."

Tallulah sits high on her jungle gym happily munching on red vines while Cobbymakes a territorial display, throwing sugar cane at the audience and tossing his stocking up into a tree.

"More for me," Tallulah seems to say as she fills up on Christmas treats.

Tunya, an adult male lion with tremendous paws, shambles up to the large stocking hanging from one of his trees and tugs. It holds, so he turns his attention to a snowman constructed of white bedsheets and stuffed with hay drenched in female lion urine. He sniffs a gift box wrapped in red paper lying at the snowman's feet and, using his claw, rips it open. His great nose disappears inside the box and comes up chewing a big chunk of meat. The early-morning crowd applauds appreciatively. Tunya knocks over his snowman with a playful swipe and devours the goodies inside, then turns his attention back to the stocking. He lies on his back underneath the sock, playfully batting at the package as a house cat might a Christmas ornament. Finally, the sock gives, spilling out rabbit hearts, watermelons, and rolls of paper towels. Tunya sits up, arranging the rabbit hearts between his paws and daintily devouring them. Then, with a happy leap and a rumbling purr, he shreds the paper towels, a behavior mimicked by smaller cats with smaller rolls of paper in households throughout the world.

Next door, two 9-1/2-year-old tigers fight over their gifts -- horse meat and squab wrapped in colorful boxes -- as if they are sibling rivals.

"They're brother and sister," confirms Lori Komejan.

At last, taking clawing cues from Tony, Emilymanages to open her own present and devour the contents. They both go to work on their stockings, with occasional play breaks to romp in the straw drenched in their favorite fragrance: Calvin Klein's Obsession.

It's a wonderful day at the zoo, and all the animals seem to know it. Perhaps it's the carolers singing at every bend or the decorations hanging from the trees or the smell of hot chocolate and roasting chestnuts rising from the food carts. Maybe it's the weird guy in the polar bear suit riding around on the zoo train. Whatever it is, the animals know what Christmas means, and they all have their own style: One polar bear charges at his boxes like a lunatic, scattering fish across the ground and lapping them up in great mouthfuls, while the other bear dips her head inside her box, genteelly pulling out one fish at a time. The "fish-cicles" -- blocks of ice filled with fruit and seafood and dyed red with fruit punch -- are similarly treated. One bear gnaws on his block, picking it up in his great jaws and dropping it, while the other licks it demurely, occasionally scraping ice away with her claw.

In the Asian elephant habitat, Tinkerbellis beside herself with excitement, staring at the piles of presents, which are just out of reach across the moat, while Calle, Tinkerbell's pal, is relaxed and content to play with her keeper. It's frustrating to Tinkerbell, you can tell. She paces back and forth in front of her pile of loot, waiting for her keeper's attention to be diverted, then stretches her trunk as far as it will reach, though she gets nothing for her efforts but a scolding.

"Back up," says Tinkerbell's keeper, "or no presents."

The 35-year-old elephant miserably backs away from the moat, never once taking her eyes off the gifts, and waits, but as her keeper carries the gifts over the moat, the anticipation becomes too much, and Tinkerbell begins to rock back and forth, tossing dirt in the air with her trunk, eyeing her keeper with despair. At the first quiet word of encouragement, Tinkerbell charges over to her pile of presents, all censors forgotten. She stuffs trunkfuls of red licorice into her mouth, and she stomps on her gift boxes, causing melon and fruit to explode in all directions. Tinkerbell shoves apples into her mouth, one after the other, and delicately scrapes the flesh out of her watermelon before shoving the rind into her mouth as well. She stomps on another box, uncovering a pineapple, which she cores with a perfect, swift yank of her trunk, much to the delight of the crowd, before also eating the core. By the time Tinkerbell is finished, the ground about her feet is sticky with fruit juice and she is vibrating like an overexcited child. Thirty-four-year-old Calle, on the other hand, has just started her second box, which she adroitly opens, using the tip of her trunk, before selecting one piece of fruit at a time. No mess, no hurry. Just like a little princess. Tinkerbell decides to eat her box.

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