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Life on Campus Proves to Be an Eye-Opener for 3-Month-Old Ape : Animals: The gibbon, abandoned by its mother, has found a sort of foster home, with 24-hour attention, at the Moorpark College teaching zoo.

July 30, 1993|BRENDA DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The tiny baby ape stretched her arms longingly and took a few shaky steps before grabbing hold of Mara Rodriguez, the closest thing to a mother she has ever known.

Abandoned at birth, the 3-month-old agile gibbon dubbed "Melaka" has found a sort of foster home at Moorpark College's teaching zoo, where 12 student interns help Rodriguez provide care around the clock.

A year from now, Melaka will return to the International Center for Gibbon Studies in Saugus, where she was born and immediately dropped by her mother. Meanwhile, she demands bottle feedings, burpings, diaper changes and constant holding.

"This is good practice for when I have kids some day," said Rodriguez, 22, the zoo's community education coordinator. She paused to add: "Except she bites. I would hope if I had a kid, it wouldn't bite me."

An endangered tree-dwelling ape from Malaysia, the agile gibbon normally spends much of its first year carried by its mother, Rodriguez said. True to form, wide-eyed Melaka does not take well to the ground, playpen or bed.

"Even at night, she's with someone so she can hear the heartbeat," Rodriguez said.

Since Melaka was six hours old, Rodriguez has served as her primary care-giver. In the weeks after her arrival in Moorpark, Rodriguez slept in the office at night until she felt comfortable allowing others to keep watch.

"Definitely, it's been the biggest test of responsibility in my life," Rodriguez said. "This is another life, counting on you."

Covered by shiny black fur everywhere except her fingertips and face, Melaka was the second newborn rejected by the same mother and only the second ever abandoned at birth in the 13-year history of the nonprofit study center, Director Alan Mootnick said.

The center, dedicated to preserving and propagating gibbons, gave the other infant to the Los Angeles Zoo to be raised, Mootnick said. Melaka's brother recently returned and has adjusted well to life with another gibbon, he said.

Because she was abandoned by her mother, Melaka is predisposed to the same behavior herself, though it is not a guarantee that she will reject her offspring, Mootnick said. Melaka's mother was abandoned and hand-raised, he said.

"Sadly enough, it runs in families," Rodriguez said.

The teaching zoo at Moorpark College was a natural choice for Melaka's early development, because students from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program regularly receive internships at the Saugus center, Rodriguez said.

No more than five different people a day working in shifts handle the baby ape, who keeps in constant motion wrapping her long arms around their necks, crawling around their laps or twirling from their fingertips.

The students rotate the responsibility for holding her all night, anticipating the ear-piercing midnight squeal of hunger that means feeding time, Rodriguez said.

The only thing that prepared student Joe Suffredini for the work was occasionally watching other people's children, he said.

"But I've never had a baby-sitting job like this," he said as Melaka hung from his arm to do a flip.

Like any mother, Rodriguez has become attached to the baby and knows that letting go next year will be difficult. "It's the eyes. She looks at you and you want to cry," Rodriguez said.

But she feels fortunate to do work that she loves, Rodriguez added.

"When other people are sitting at a desk or stuck in a traffic jam, and I'm sitting here playing with an ape, I wouldn't trade what I do for anything," Rodriguez said. "It's remarkable."

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