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Apes in the Desert : Self-Taught Expert on Gibbons Seeks Nonprofit Status for Research Center

November 07, 1988|T.W. McGARRY | Times Staff Writer

At sunrise each day, Alan Mootnick's chorus greets the dawn with a yammering of wild hoots, filling the desert north of Santa Clarita with the exotic cacophony of an Asian jungle.

Mootnick runs the Gibbon and Gallinaceous Bird Center, home to up to two dozen gibbons, the small, monkey-like apes who claim--loudly--the title of noisiest land mammals on earth.

It is unusual for a construction worker and house painter such as Mootnick, whose formal education ended in junior college, to head a zoological research institution. But Mootnick is a far cry from the usual construction worker.

Not many of them publish scientific papers in scholarly journals, or play host to university researchers with doctorates who come to study with them. Not many receive accolades from university researchers and zoo administrators as leading experts in wildlife biology.

Mootnick does.


Mootnick has run the center--indeed, he is the center--for 10 years, supporting it out of his own pocket, simply because he thinks gibbons are worthwhile. It costs him about $30,000 a year, he said.

He is finishing the paper work to apply this month to California and federal tax authorities for recognition of the center as an educational institution. With tax-deductible status, he said, he hopes to attract grants that will allow him to give up construction work, concentrate on writing research papers, and perhaps move his gibbons to a new home somewhere with a milder climate, like Ventura.

He runs the center like a scientific institution. Scholars from American and foreign universities come there to observe gibbon biology and behavior. He has published 10 research papers in scholarly journals such as the American Journal of Primatology, Cell Genetics and Cytogenetics and works of the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.

His own formal education, however, consists of a diploma from Birmingham High School and a 2-year dental technician course at Los Angeles City College. He never worked as a dental technician, he said, because "I hated the idea of being cooped up in a little office, staring at tiny objects." He found painting and remodeling houses more satisfying and runs his own business.

Mootnick shrugs off the observation that few manual laborers with little more than a high school education could write papers acceptable to scientific journals published for university-based scholars.

"If you get good facts and can prove they're right, background isn't such a problem," he said.

The academic community is impressed, however.

"What he's done is remarkable," commented Joe Erwin, a biology professor at the American University in Washington and editor of the American Journal of Primatology from 1980 until May of this year.

"Mootnick has worked very hard to establish credibility with the scientific community against what I think were overwhelming odds," Erwin said. "It's quite difficult for someone who hasn't gone through formal training to be able to write a paper that is in the right format, properly scientifically documented, and get it published in a journal that is refereed by experts in the field. It's difficult for someone with his background to establish a strong reputation, but his reputation is quite good."

Richard Tenaza, a biology professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton who is usually named by other primate researchers as one of the handful of gibbon experts in the country, said he was surprised to learn that Mootnick had no formal education in the field. "He's very impressive on gibbon taxonomy--better at it than I am," Tenaza said.

Taxonomy includes classifying individual animals as members of one of the nine species of gibbons and many subspecies, which often look alike--a problem that is compounded by interbreeding of species in zoos. When other biologists and zoo administrators are stumped in classifying a gibbon, Tenaza said, they send for Mootnick to render judgment.

Recognizing Cries

"Alan is the epitome of the kind of person who teaches himself through dedication and determination," said Rick Barongi, curator of mammals at the San Diego Zoo. "People in our field should learn from him not to judge others by the number of degrees they have."

Mootnick is "one of only two gibbon experts in the United States," Barongi said.

"I can call Alan on the phone and play a recording of a gibbon's vocalization, and he can tell me right off what species and subspecies it belongs to. Only one other researcher in the country can do that. And he has a Ph.D. and works at the Smithsonian."

"He's collected some unique information on a diverse group of gibbons, including some species that were almost unknown to science," said Don Lindburg, animal behaviorist for the San Diego Zoo and former primate researcher at the University of California.

"He's very well-connected in the gibbon world. He knows every researcher who's ever looked at a gibbon."

Gibbon Census

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