Betty the gibbon and her mate, U Maung U Maung, were making the most of the space they had. A few awed visitors looked on Sunday as the active and agile apes swung rapidly from the branches in their enclosure and the chain-link fence that surrounded them.
The two small singing apes are among the 39 animals housed according to family in enclosures about the size of a two-story living room at the Gibbon Conservation Center in Santa Clarita. When the center's founder, Alan Mootnick, moved to the 10-acre piece of rural land in 1980, he planned to stay only two years.
On Sunday, several neighbors of the center, dozens of families with small children, a few of Mootnick's friends and several amateur primatologists gathered at the center despite a bit of rain to help raise funds for a move.
"After 30 years," Mootnick told the group, "I keep saying, 'God, when am I going to move?' "
The gibbons, which are native to rainforests in southern and eastern parts of Asia, would be better off on a bigger, more temperate spot of land where they could have quarter-acre sized enclosures, he said. Even more pressing, he said: In recent years the threat of nearby development has become constant.
The recession delayed a proposed development next door, which Mootnick fears would eventually threaten the health and well-being of the animals. But it's also made it more difficult to raise money. Some of what is raised during the annual October fundraiser must also go to paying for the center's day-to-day operations. But Mootnick is eager to go.
"It's better to get ready to move before they begin construction," he said.
Any development nearby would stress the gibbons, Mootnick said. Movement of the soil could also spread valley fever, a fungal infection that is deadly to the primates. The climate in the Santa Clarita Valley near Bouquet Canyon also is harsher in the summer and winter than the apes would like.
The animals are naturally very territorial; the singing that makes them famous is a warning to other animals not to go onto their turf. In the wild, they would wander over several acres, swinging rapidly from branch to branch and gathering fruit.
Over the last five years, Mootnick stepped up efforts to leave and has identified 50 acres of suitable land near the coast in Ventura County, but he hasn't managed to gather the nearly half million dollars he needs to move the largest and rarest group of gibbons in the Western Hemisphere.
Mootnick, who said he started working toward having a zoo when he was 9, is highly protective of the animals, as are the volunteers who help him run the center. They gibbons are fed nine times a day, and workers do a proper surgical scrub between enclosures to prevent the spread of disease. The animals get a mix of vegetables and fruits, steamed broccoli and cauliflower, apples and oranges, but nothing that might be too harsh on their digestive systems.
"The goal is to keep them as happy as they can be," said volunteer coordinator Chris Roderick.
The center receives visitors on guided tours, but Mootnick wants to be sure they are properly educated before they are allowed to roam freely. On Sunday, several said they were pleased and excited to learn about the center but eager to see the animals in bigger enclosures.
Jordan Perzik and Ryan Oboza of Hollywood, who attended the fundraiser after learning about it from a flier at their local dog park, sat on a bench watching Betty and U Maung U Maung swing around their enclosure. For a few minutes, while Oboza took photos, U Maung U Maung climbed to the fence directly in front of them and watched.
"It's so interesting," said Perzik, "It's so random that this is here, just 40 miles from L.A."