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Gabbing with the gibbons

Visitors go ape over small, singing primates at Conservation Center

Posted: February 21, 2009 12:19 a.m.
Updated: February 21, 2009 12:30 p.m.

Kino, a male Siamang, uses his throat sack to make the distinctive vocal song of the gibbons at the Gibbon Conservation Center Thursday.

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Alan Mootnick grew up with a dream to become Tarzan’s son.

About the age of 9, Mootnick took a trip to the Los Angeles Zoo where he saw gibbons for the first time and heard the soothing howls they use to mark their territory.

“I fell in love with them,” Mootnick, 58, said.

He pursued his love of the small, furry apes in 1976 with the establishment of the Gibbons Conservation Center in Chatsworth and a focus on researching gibbons.

By 1980, Mootnick and his six gibbons found a new home at a very rural spot off Bouquet Canyon Road, where the center has been for more than 30 years.

“It is a completely different class of people now than when I moved here,” he said.

The center is home to 33 gibbons. Five of the 16 gibbons species live at the center, he said.

Visitors become engulfed in shade from cages busy with gibbons swinging on ropes and tree limbs. In one area, a baby clings to its mother as the father swings back and forth at a fast pace.

As a visitor makes eye contact with the primates, the gibbons quickly climb toward the front bars of the cage, often reaching out to the strangers and looking out with curiosity.

The only other way to view gibbons is to take a trip to Asia and observe them in the wild, Mootnick said.

They are acrobats of the jungles, swinging 50 feet from tree-to-tree, hitting speeds of 35 mph.

Gibbons — which are apes, not monkeys — reach 40 inches in height and often weigh 12 to 50 pounds, he said.
The gibbon is the only nonhuman primate that walks on two feet.

Mootnick, who lives at the center, names the gibbons after international primatologists.

Gibbons typically live to be 30 years old, although one gibbon in New Zealand lived until 60 before recently dying, he said.
The conservation center’s gibbons range in age from five months to 35 years old.

“All animals and plants have a purpose on this planet, and the removal of one of those plants or animals can change the environment,” he said.

Predators like pythons and eagles threaten gibbons in their native Asia.

But perhaps the biggest enemy to gibbons is human growth as development continues to destroy the gibbons’ habitats in Asia.

Mootnick said he can feel the problem at the center, as the sound of helicopters raising power lines in the Bouquet Canyon hills rumble through the once-rural community.

“When they’re under stress, they can get sick easily,” he said.

A proposed residential development could surround the center, he said. Santa Clarita Valley’s extreme weather is not beneficial to the gibbons, either, he said.

The gibbons have outgrown the 10-acre center. Only two-and-a-half acres are dedicated to the gibbons’ cages.

“There is no more room to expand,” he said.

Mootnick would like to move the center to a 50-acre property in Ventura County.

While he dreams of moving soon, he considers two years a realistic time line, considering the approval process for the permits.

Until then, Mootnick continues to raise money for the center and its next home through the “Breakfast with the Gibbons” fundraiser, which allows families to visit the center, share a meal and learn about the gibbons.

The next breakfast is scheduled for May 9.

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