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WILD THINGS | SO SoCal

Happy Together

September 29, 1996|Dave Gardetta

lan Mootnick once owned 33 Jaguars and a single tiger. The Jaguars all had overhead cams and hailed from England; the tiger was all sinew and stripes and hailed from Siberia, and eventually it moved to another owner because Mootnick didn't understand cats the way he understands gibbons--the tree-dwelling primates that became his life's work. They and Mootnick live together, in the International Center for Gibbon Studies, on the edge of Saugus.

Mootnick is making life easier for gibbons, housing 30 of them in giant cages he builds himself; writing papers about them ("The Sexual Behavior of Maternally Separated Gibbons' took him 14 years to complete); planning a trip to Southeast Asia, where life--full of poachers and disappearing forests--is definitely not easy for gibbons, and feeding his gibbons very well (Mootnick's Jags were liquidated--one by one--to pay his monthly $1,200 produce bill).

Gibbons are native to Southeast Asia, but Mootnick's gibbons come from places as disparate as Berlin and Phoenix. Generally, they are the flotsam of zoos that don't have mates or room for them. But they have Mootnick, who keeps feelers out worldwide, and who--like an SPCA of one--finds them in lonely cages and brings them home to Saugus. No one knows how many gibbons are left in the wild--all 11 species are endangered--but the second-largest domestic collection is in Mootnick's front yard, eating kale, papaya and spirulina. Mootnick would like to own 50 breeding pairs, his own modest attempt at repopulating a world of disappearing gibbons.

At 45, Mootnick has willed himself into a place few people find themselves at midlife: creating, funding and devoting almost every waking hour to a nonprofit home for persecuted animals. Such stations are usually reserved for big-maned women with dramatic profiles and Hollywood funding. Mootnick is unknown in Hollywood--what financial assistance he gets comes from schools touring the center and what he can set aside from a sideline remodeling homes--but he is respected at conventions where primatologists gather. Which is ironic, because Mootnick is an autodidact: He originally went to college to study dentistry but ended up, with no schooling, an expert in primates, which is about as easy as studying to be a primatologist and ending up an expert in root canal. But when Mootnick, the former dentist-candidate, stands up to deliver a paper, as he did recently at a Wisconsin gathering, the primatologists ask pointed questions, then sit back and listen attentively.

Mootnick knows he's an eccentric--he usually eats standing up or while walking, as do the gibbons. He has known it since he read a book on eccentrics and felt he'd stumbled onto a lost family. (Actually, he only got halfway through the book, an eccentric problem of his, he says.)

But eccentrics are famous for doing eccentric things instead of talking about them. As Mootnick, happily ensconced among his kale-munching charges, says: "When I was 7, I went to the zoo and heard gibbons singing, and that was when I knew I wanted to help things survive. I would rather spend my life doing something like this than just thinking about it.'

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