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
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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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