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 wild.
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 enthusiasm.
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?
It's 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 evolution?
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.
Roderick 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?).
Roderick 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 about.
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.' "Follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.