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Gibbons looking to leave town

Down payment halfway raised, but proper location hard to find

Posted: February 15, 2010 10:07 p.m.
Updated: February 16, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Jitka chases her younger sister Makiko around their cage at the Gibbon Conservation Center on Monday afternoon.

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Alan Mootnick cares so much about protecting his endangered gibbons from human encroachment that even he doesn’t interact with them.

“It’s better for them,” he said. The self-taught gibbon specialist said he avoids angering, disappointing or plain confusing his 38 apes by not playing, cuddling or otherwise handling them. “I do this for them, not for me.”

The 59-year-old caregiver created the Gibbon Conservation Center in Bouquet Canyon 30 years ago this month after operating it on a smaller scale in the San Fernando Valley starting in 1976.

Mootnick has dedicated his life to this singular purpose. When he was 9, Mootnick saw the television show “Tarzan” and heard the apes singing in the background. He knew then that he would devote his life to keeping gibbons.

He acquires the small, rare apes from other conservatories, zoos and the like, he said.

Mootnick keeps the rarest group of apes in the Northern Hemisphere. Gibbons are endangered in their natural habitats in Asia due to human encroachment.

“It’s kind of the same thing that’s happening to me here,” Mootnick said over the spontaneous whoops and shrieks of the apes from within their chain-link enclosures.

An Alhambra company plans to build homes on the 1,000 acres that surround three sides of his property, Mootnick said. Because of this, the small space he owns and the climate, he wants to move his bevy of warblers to Ventura County.

Mootnick chose the rugged, canyon-side 10 acres as a seemingly temporary location for its rural, peaceful feel.

It’s not so peaceful anymore — not for Mootnick, anyway.

The activity from the impending development will surely stress the apes, thus weakening their immune systems, Mootnick said.

This would make them further susceptible to valley fever, a fungus that can be deadly, he said. One of his gibbons has already died from the fever. He’s not sure how it was contracted.

He amped up fundraising efforts about three years ago, and has in that time collected $200,000 and estimates he’ll need another $200,000 for a down payment on a new piece of property.

After being in escrow twice in the past 12 months, he’s now eyeing a 40-acre spot in an agricultural area of Ventura County.

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