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AROUND THE SOUTH BAY

Couple can't help but go ape over monkey business

July 16, 1987|KAREN ROEBUCK

Evelyn Gallardo's dark eyes are like the hundreds that peer out from her friends' faces in photographs on her living-room walls--deep, intense, probing, yet somehow quiet.

Gallardo captured her friends--mountain gorillas, orangutans and other primates--on film and hopes to use the pictures to keep the animals, some of whom are endangered, from being seized for exhibit.

"They're so much like us," Gallardo said. "Their eyes mirror your own humanity; their eyes mirror their emotions and their emotions mirror ours."

Gallardo and David Root, who live in Manhattan Beach, have made saving the lives of the great apes the major part of their own lives.

They travel as often as possible to remote jungles to observe the primates in their natural habitats; to volunteer their time, skills and money to well-known primate researchers like the late Dian Fossey, and to know the joy of orangutan "motherhood" or the fear of being charged at by a mountain gorilla.

Next month, the couple will return to Borneo, an island southwest of the Philippines, to volunteer again with Birute Galdikas , a scientist who helps wean captive orangutans from civilization and return them to the wild at her research center, Tanjung Puting Reserve, in the Indonesian part of the island.

At the reserve three years ago, Root was drafted into "motherhood" by a young orangutan, who was later named Davida for him. The Indonesian government had confiscated Davida from a family who kept her as a pet.

She was near death when she arrived at the reserve and could not be placed with the other orangutans immediately. She slept in Root's and Gallardo's cabin while recuperating and sometimes snuggled, in diapers, next to Root in bed.

She became attached to Root, screaming and stamping her feet whenever he put her down. She fought off female orangutans who tried to adopt her and teach her how to live in the jungle.

It was not until after Root and Gallardo returned to the United States that Davida tried to readjust to the wild--in the care of another young, ex-captive orangutan.

Root, 47, and Gallardo, 38, hope to visit Davida during their five-week trip to the reserve, where Davida and other orangutans in the wild return somewhat regularly to eat.

Root seems to have a knack for endearing himself to primates, Gallardo said. While Root was observing mountain gorillas in the east-central African country of Rwanda, one sat with his head resting on Root's shoulder for about 20 minutes.

During that visit to Fossey's research center about five months before the scientist was murdered in 1985, Gallardo had a frightening experience with a young gorilla.

The playful mountain gorilla ran toward Gallardo, beating his chest. Gallardo momentarily forgot one of Fossey's rules--"Never run from a mountain gorilla."

When she stopped running and faced the charging prankster, she broke yet another rule by yelling "No!"

In Fossey's domain, no one was to talk to the mountain gorillas in English, only the animals' own guttural language. Fossey imposed the rules to minimize the effect of human contact on the gorillas' behavior.

But Gallardo's reprimand worked as it would with most startled children. "He just got a little hurt look on is face and did a backward somersault and turned and went away," Gallardo said.

When a mountain gorilla charges, he is almost always bluffing, she explained.

Mountain gorillas are sensitive to human emotions. The animals sometimes touched Gallardo and the other observers and tugged at their clothes, she said, adding that another Fossey rule was that no one was to touch the primates.

A mountain gorilla tried a couple of times to touch Gallardo's face--probably curious about her lack of facial hair--but when she whimpered to let him know that she was uncomfortable, he pulled his hand away, she said.

Gallardo and Root want to save the estimated 230 mountain gorillas remaining in the world from extinction and captivity and to save other primates from captivity as well. They sell posters, T-shirts and Gallardo's photos, sending all the money to primate protection organizations.

Gallardo worked in marketing until she quit about a year ago to promote her photographs, videos and the protection of the primates. Root is a business consultant and owns a few rental properties.

They hope to sell other photos and possibly make documentaries to raise money for their trips, which Root said cost at least $10,000 each.

The couple lectures in greater Los Angeles to promote their cause and try to raise money for their trips to Africa, Indonesia, South America and remote islands. They usually break even, they said. They plan to write a book about their experiences in the jungles.

"Work was not the focus of our lives," Gallardo said. "It was just a means to an end."

She said she has been interested in primates since she was a child and stood by their cages in zoos, observing them, and marveling at how much they resemble humans.

Root said that years ago, at a home in Woodland Hills, he had several wild animals as pets, including ocelots, a jaguar cub and squirrel and spider monkeys. But he regrets that now.

"It's wrong to own (wild) animals . . . no matter how comfortable and happy you can make them," he said. It is better to observe the animals in their own habitat, he said, adding that animals act differently in the jungle than when caged in a zoo.

"People think field work is glamorous," Gallardo said, "but field work is pulling leeches off of you and trudging up muddy mountains. . . . It's extremely difficult work when you're out there--but that's not how we see it. . . . "This is our idea of fun."

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