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Zoo Opens a New Home Away From Home for Primates

August 22, 1985|WILLIAM S. MURPHY | Murphy is a Times photographer. and

SAN FRANCISCO — Sixteen species of threatened or endangered monkeys and prosimians are the first tenants of the unique new $7-million Thelma and Henry Doelger Primate Discovery Center at the San Francisco Zoo.

Each colony is housed in a habitat that duplicates natural environments.

Among the more than 80 animals in the center are a tribe of patas monkeys (two of which escaped July 11 and are the objects of a search) that inhabit an open grassland similar to the dry, open regions of Africa's savannas. Reddish-coated and long-legged, they are capable of running as fast as 35 m.p.h. In the wild, they avoid predators by blending into their surroundings.

Swim for Their Supper

The crab-eating macaque (which also eats other food) lives in the coastal lowland areas of Southeast Asia, where it roams the mangrove swamps in large groups. The animals like to swim, and their exhibit area here contains a swimming pool.

One of the rarest varieties at the zoo's primate center are the black-and-white ruffed lemurs, a prosimian from Madagascar, where the destruction of forests threatens the species.

"Prosimians are primates from Africa and Asia that possess more primitive features than monkeys," explained Ellen Newman of the zoo's staff. "They occupy an evolutionary position between insectivores and monkeys."

Another prosimian species, the slow loris, lives in a nocturnal gallery with a reversed lighting cycle that lets visitors view its inhabitants in semidarkness during their active hours. Slow loris normally sleep through the day.

Among other occupants of the nocturnal gallery is a family of douroucouli, the only true nocturnal monkey. These range the tropical forests from western Panama to the Amazon basin and into Argentina. They mate for life, living in established family groups. Two have been born at the San Francisco Zoo.

A troop of arboreal black-and-white colobus monkeys, indigenous to equatorial Africa, lives in a five-story-tall enclosure with 200,000 cubic feet of space for them to explore.

"Colobus monkeys live in the uppermost canopy of the rain forest," senior keeper Carol Martinez said. "They are superb aerialists, able to jump from tree to tree for distances up to 30 feet."

Because the colobus monkeys spend much of their time aloft in branches, multiple walkways were built to bring zoo visitors up to treetop level.

"The black-and-white colobus is a threatened species," Martinez continued. "They were hunted almost to extinction at the turn of the century because their beautiful black-and-white fur was much sought after and considered very fashionable to wear."

Martinez, the first woman supervisor at the San Francisco Zoo, graduated from Arizona State University at Tempe with a degree in Spanish. Visits to zoos in England and Germany fostered her interest in animals.

Volunteer Docent

"I began reading books about them," she recalled, "and then in 1972 I came here as a volunteer docent. I later was hired to work in the office for the Zoological Society. From there, I became a keeper."

During 10 years in that capacity, Martinez worked with most of the zoo's animals, including several years with the gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees. She was promoted to her present job this year.

The center has three kitchen areas for food preparation for the monkeys and prosimians. Collectively, their daily diet will consist of 30 apples, 30 bananas, eight heads of lettuce, 40 yams, 10 carrots, three pounds of raisins, 3 1/2 pounds of grapes, a dozen eggs, 23 pounds of Monkey Chow, six cans of prepared primate diet, 200 corn grubs and 250 mealworms.

Saul L. Kitchener, director of the San Francisco Zoo, was seated behind a desk in his crowded office discussing the importance of the Primate Discovery Center, which opened April 27.

Highest Intelligence

"It's unique among zoos," he said. "We are exhibiting primates in all their diversity, yet bringing them together to explain the commonality among all primates--including man. Primates are the highest order of mammals, the most intelligent of animals. By studying the non-human primates, perhaps we can gain insights into our own origins and behavior."

Kitchener envisions a research and study center here where youngsters, college students and others can learn about primates.

"The center is part of an ongoing project to make the entire zoo more like the natural habitat in which the animals live," he added.

Constant observation of the center's monkey population produces some interesting data on the habits of the various species. Sometimes it's puzzling.

Humans Take Over

"One of our mandrills had an offspring this morning," Kitchener observed reflectively. "It's quite obvious she isn't going to take care of it. Mandrills are large baboons with spectacularly colored faces. They live in the tropical rain forests of equatorial West Africa. This female has had young before, always taking care of them--who knows why she abandoned this one. We'll raise it ourselves."

Another case of unusual behavior is that of the female of the emperor tamarin species, who is truly a liberated monkey. Native to the rain forests of Peru, Bolivia and southwestern Brazil, she only bothers with her young at feeding time. When the meal is over, the mother passes the infant to its father, who drapes it around his neck like a scarf, carrying it until the next mealtime.

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