Alan Mootnick of the Gibbon Conservation Center Devoted His Life to Gibbons. What Will the Center Do Now That He's Gone?

A resident of the Gibbon Conservation Center.
A resident of the Gibbon Conservation Center.

The gibbons sang loud and long at the

Gibbon Conservation Center as its founder, Alan Richard Mootnick, passed

away in a hospital across town in the early hours of Nov. 4. Mootnick

was 60. He had for the past 35 years developed the Santa Clarita center

as a haven for the care and study of gibbons -- those small, intelligent

Southeast Asian apes poised endlessly on the brink of extinction in the


Entirely self-taught, Mootnick came to prominence in an era

when wildlife preservation functioned as the zenith of environmentalism.

In typical pragmatic Californian style, his primatology came from the

ground up: equal parts direct observation, total devotion and sheer


Mootnick offered advice to zoos, allowed researchers

into the center to study gibbon behavioral patterns, and even opened the

center year-round to students and private citizens, who wouldn't have

the faintest clue that such a place -- with its scores of cages holding

44 gibbons -- might exist anywhere near Southern California. There are

currently five of the most endangered gibbon species living at the GCC:

the northern white-cheeked, pileated, Siamang, Javan and Eastern hoolock

gibbons. Mootnick kept the studbook that ensured their survival.

So what happens when the visionary dies?


the dilemma at the heart of any great enterprise. Apple is experiencing

a similar existential crisis with the passing of Steve Jobs. What does

an organization do when one visionary individual -- who has literally

built it from the ground up -- departs after decades of toil and


The answer, at least in part, is that it's the

responsibility of its leader to provide for a future in which he is

conspicuously absent. Although he died of complications following heart

surgery, making his death an unexpected one, Mootnick had laid the

groundwork for the continuation of his work by reaching out to

primatologists for the last few decades.

The response to

Mootnick's death among his fellow conservationist wizards, according to

center staffers, has been "overwhelming." New interim director Amy

Coburn, D.V.M., has stepped in at Mootnick's behest, while the care and

feeding of the gibbons continue unabated, thanks to his longtime

assistant, Gabriella Skollar.

On a recent afternoon not long after

Mootnick died, under overcast skies shot through with crepuscular rays

ushering in the first chill of winter, staff worker Chris Roderick

guides a tour through the grounds and past the cages. It's feeding time --

bananas, onions, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, kale and apples --

something that happens at the center 10 times a day. It is the crushing

yet necessary tedium that's the cornerstone of wildlife conservation:

the measuring and the observing, the logistics of feeding and tending to

multiple animals. This is not the place where you lock eyes with an

unusually bright-eyed gibbon behind the mesh and are mercifully spared

the coming ape apocalypse à la Planet of the Apes. The stakes are lower, day to day: If you're lucky, the urine the gibbons unleash won't splash your shoes.


narrates as one such fountain suddenly flows. "Our real purpose," he

says, "is to create a comfortable living situation where these gibbon

families can make babies."

Families: husbands, wives, sisters,

brothers, aunts. Three or four new babies cling to their mothers'

bellies as they swing from branch to ledge and back again. They're bred

in accordance with Mootnick's Species Survival Plan -- another instance

of Mootnick's forward-thinking -- which ensures that there won't be, as

Roderick puts it, any "hillbilly gibbons" (isn't he in ZZ Top?).


points out a Monterey Peninsula College student work crew who came down

to help set up new enclosures and learn more about the gibbons close

up. Enthusiasm is a language like any other, and it travels down the

wires even more swiftly now as word of Mootnick's passing resonates -- in

a word -- sympathetically.

The alpha gibbon suddenly rears up and

launches a call, which can echo as far away as two miles. "When they

want to sing," Roderick explains, "both male and female have a sac under

their throat that inflates to about the size of their head, and it

gives them a subwoofer that allows them to sing this bass note that will

just shake your soul."

The call creates a chain reaction of

gooselike hooting and thrumming, and soon all 44 gibbons join in,

frightening away the coyotes and giving the neighbors something to talk


As the calling dies down, the question comes up: Did the

gibbons understand that the center's founder had died? Why the unusual

predawn howl? Roderick reflects on that strange singing on the morning

Mootnick passed away, recalling: "Gabriella said, 'I don't think it was

that he was saying goodbye. I heard them. He's here.' "

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