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Haven of the apes losing its serenity

A unique gibbons' facility is threatened by encroaching development in Santa Clarita.

June 11, 2008|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

When Chloe the gibbon and her mate Ivan hear trucks rumbling along nearby streets and helicopters clacking overhead, they dart and leap erratically. Betty, Truman, Sasha and Tuk soon join the frenzy, along with 28 other apes.

But the residents at the Gibbon Conservation Center aren't just monkeying around.

"It's a stressful situation for them," said Alan Mootnick, founder of the nonprofit center just outside Santa Clarita. "They don't know which direction to turn. It's like they're trying to get away."

It's also distressing to Mootnick, a soft-spoken self-taught expert on gibbons who has won praise from zoologists and has published dozens of scholarly papers in peer-reviewed publications, including the International Journal of Primatology.

Professional primatologists say the center is home to the largest and rarest group of gibbons in the Western Hemisphere. The collection includes Hylobates gibbons, the only nonhuman primates to naturally walk on two limbs, which often have a white ring of fur around their faces; tailless Symphalangus, which have two fingers on each hand fused together; hoolock gibbons, distinguished by their bushy white eyebrows; and Nomascus, which have fluffy, light-colored cheeks that resemble sideburns.

But now, encroaching urban development is threatening the health and well-being of the gibbons from Southeast Asia, Mootnick said. He is trying to raise funds to move the zoo-like facility that he founded in 1976 in then-sparsely populated Bouquet Canyon.

Less than 500 feet from the center's front gate, work has begun on the first phase of a $1.8-billion Southern California Edison project to tap wind power and eventually deliver 4,500 megawatts of renewable power to California's grid.

Don Johnson, the project manager, said he was unaware of the proximity of the Edison effort to the gibbon center, but the company had sent notices to area residents warning of possible noise and disruption, and so far there had been "no inquiries or complaints."

In addition, Bouquet Canyon Land Fund Eight has applied to Los Angeles County to build 334 single-family homes on about 500 acres neighboring the center.

Mootnick fears the worst if this project is allowed to proceed.

"It will stress them out, the sounds of the bulldozers and machines," Mootnick said.

Accompanying the din is the threat of valley fever, a deadly soil fungus spread through the air when the earth is disrupted. Mootnick said that the infection makes it hard for gibbons to breathe and that two years ago, an ape named Chester died from valley fever.

Being constantly exposed to loud noise can also cause reproductive problems in female gibbons, causing them to abort, said Lori Sheeran, a primatologist at Central Washington University. At least one gibbon has aborted at the Saugus center in past years, Mootnick said.

As for gibbons being suitable suburban neighbors, Mootnick pointed out that human residents would have to be tolerant of the cacophony of piercing hoots, shrill screams and booms that accompany each sunrise.

"It's hard to know if they would want to wake up to gibbons singing," Mootnick said.

Kimberly Yu, project coordinator for Bouquet Canyon Land Fund Eight's proposed housing development, declined to comment on the center.

Mootnick's formal education consists of a diploma from Birmingham High School in Los Angeles and a two-year course in dental technology at Los Angeles City College. He loved to work with his hands and in the 1970s took up welding. In 1980, he started a painting and remodeling business.

But his passion remained primates. The interest stemmed from his love of the fictional character Tarzan, a man raised by apes in the jungle. He became enchanted with gibbons the first time he heard them "singing" at a zoo, when he was around 9.

"I also identified with them," said Mootnick, who is 57 and single. "I saw similarities in myself. I was lean, and agile, and comical."

In 1976, Mootnick acquired his first ape, Spanky. She had been someone's pet. Two years later, he received Chan Chan on loan from the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I., as a breeding partner.

Proceeds from his remodeling business and the sale of a classic Jaguar car collection funded the 1980 purchase of the five-acre Bouquet Canyon site.

Although the location, where Mootnick lives in a converted machine shop, was ideal because of its isolation, he never intended it to be a permanent home for his primates. The weather in the canyon is too extreme for gibbons, with "summers too hot, winters too cold," Mootnick said.

At least one gibbon has fainted from the heat in recent years, and they all become distinctly less active when a chill sets in, Mootnick said.

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