The sun is high, the sky is blue, and a few scattered hoots are on the verge of becoming a rare midafternoon chorus at the Gibbon Conservation Center. “These guys usually sing in the morning,” says Alan Mootnick, director of the center. “But maybe you'll get lucky.”
Sure enough, the hoots quickly multiply into a deafening harmony of gibbon clatter. “Well, this is a really exciting treat,” Mootnick shouts over the din with a smile so big it seems like he's never seen his gibbons sing before. From all directions there are howls and groans, beeps and whistles, some so fast and high-pitched that the collective output sounds electronic, like the workings of some futuristic laboratory. “In their native forest,” Mootnick says, “you can hear this for miles. Luckily, my neighbors out here don't mind.”
Mootnick doesn't have that many neighbors on the edge of Santa Clarita, not far from Vasquez Rocks and past the frontier where the malls and developments gradually give way to farms and horse ranches. Santa Clarita is an unlikely place for the country's largest zoological facility devoted to gibbon research, but that's what the Gibbon Conservation Center is.
“We have the rarest group of apes — and don't forget that gibbons are apes — in the western hemisphere,” he says. “And the most gibbons. We're also the only place in the world with all four gibbon genera.”
Mootnick wears khaki long sleeves and brown suspenders even when not in the field, because he doesn't like the sun. “And neither do the gibbons, really,” he says. “But this is where land is cheap. Or was cheap. And this is where we wound up.” To find these apes in the wild, you'd have to travel to a half-dozen countries on two continents and hunker down for weeks in jungle undergrowth covered in sweat and 90 percent DEET. “But if you live in Los Angeles,” Mootnick says, “all you have to do is drive up the 5 freeway.”
If you've never seen a gibbon, do make that trip. If you have seen a gibbon, then you know they are endlessly playful, fascinating creatures, and you will therefore also want to make that trip. Gibbons have just the right ratio of arm length to body weight to make them the most natural acrobats on earth. When they're not effortlessly arcing from perch to perch at 35 miles per hour, they like to demonstrate their abilities as the only nonhuman primates to brachiate, meaning they walk upright, loping around like adorable little long-armed hairy people. This is what the kindergartner-sized, black-haired Siamangs are currently doing, as Mootnick chuckles at their antics.
“Kino and Rumi have issues to work out,” he says. The chorus is still going strong, and Kino and Rumi chime in, filling their throat pouches and letting their mandibles float on the notes as they exhale. “The songs are part of their little drama,” Mootnick says, decoding the story for us. The trouble started when he separated the couple for four months — they were a bit too amorous and Mootnick didn't want more offspring — and Kino took the time alone as an opportunity to start singing with another female in a separate enclosure. “Now that they're back together, Rumi started drowning him out, throwing him off, trying to break his new love.”
Mootnick's own gibbon love began when he was 9. Tarzan led him to the old Griffith Park zoo, which led him to ask his parents why he couldn't build his own zoo at home. “They told me that there's nothing in the world I couldn't do,” Mootnick says. “But — they added that I'd have to do it myself.”
And so, at 9 years of age, self-starter Mootnick took a job working at his grandfather's furniture store. The money was important, but equally valuable was the ability to acquire scrap materials. He'd straighten the nails from broken chair legs, sofa frames and credenza doors, converting the remnants into cages in his parents' backyard. The first menagerie started with a dog, a rabbit and a pair of pigeons. At 13, Mootnick started welding. Bigger enclosures led to bigger animals, including primates. But it wasn't until his mid-20s that Mootnick got a hold of his first gibbon, a white-handed or Jar Gibbon.
“At the time,” he says, “I had a lot of animals, not just gibbons. I was living on 2.5 acres in Woodland Hills, if you can believe, with a homemade zoo. And I was leasing.”
Eventually Mootnick moved out to Santa Clarita and pared down to focus solely on gibbons. He is entirely self-taught, and Mootnick's 32 years working with gibbons have made him a world-renowned expert. He publishes papers in top journals, appears at symposia, does field work and provides an important breeding service, loaning partners, finding unrelated mates to keep bloodlines healthy and producing offspring for zoos all over the world.
In a nearby cage, Cantor, a little golden baby Northern White-Cheeked Gibbon, is clinging adorably to his mother. “These are some of the most endangered gibbons,” Mootnick says as we watch the family watch us. In the wild, they number less than 500. In general, the pressure on gibbons is enormous. In Bangladesh, where gibbons once widely roamed the canopies, there are only 200 gibbons left. “They need our help,” Mootnick says.
The Gibbon Conservation Center survives on a supply of volunteers (including Mootnick, who has never been paid for his years of work) and fund-raising from corporations, individuals, membership drives and a gift shop where Mootnick sells items imported from Indonesia. Twice a year, he hosts a fund-raising picnic for the public. “The last one brought in 400 people,” he says. “A big success.”
Mootnick is hoping to raise enough money for a bigger plot, in Ventura County, where he envisions his ultimate zoo: a system of larger, naturalistic enclosures, without fences, where the public can sit and observe gibbons for hours as if they were on a field study in the wild.
“It's a new type of idea,” he says. “But it will work.”
The estimated cost? Up to a couple million dollars. A stretch, Mootnick knows, but he points out that it was a stretch to get this far from the 9-year-old banging discarded furniture together in his backyard.
“My next picnic is in October,” he says. It's a breakfast picnic on October 19. “The more people who come to enjoy the gibbons now will help others enjoy them in the future.”
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