Alan Mootnik
Director, Gibbon Conservation Center

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Friday, April 29, 2005

[WATCH the television interview conducted November 16, 2004]

Alan Mootnik / by RENEH AGHA-The Signal     "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is Alan Mootnik, director of the Gibbon Conservation Center, up Bouquet Canyon Road in Saugus. The interview was conducted Nov. 16, 2004. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: What is the Gibbon Conservation Center?

Mootnik: We house the largest group of gibbons in the Western Hemisphere. They are small apes, and we house all four genera at that location.

Signal: Genera?

Mootnik: Well, there are subspecies and species, and then subgenus and the genus level. There are four genera of gibbon. We're the only place in the world that houses all four genera. So it's great for study, educational purposes, and a very good opportunity for us there.

Signal: How many species are there?

Mootnik: There are 13 species of gibbon. We house six of the 13 species.

Signal: Where do they live in the wild?

Mootnik: They're found in southeast and South Asia and the rain forest — all the way from southern China to Indonesia, and as far to the left as Bangladesh, northeast India and Vietnam.

Signal: Saugus isn't exactly a jungle; how does Saugus work in terms of a climate for these animals?

Mootnik: It's not quite the perfect location. So (we) add additional oils to their diet, and it really helps them out a lot.

Signal: Which came first — you in Saugus, and saving gibbons later; or did you run a gibbon conservation effort somewhere else first, and you landed in Saugus afterward?

Mootnik: Landed in Saugus afterwards. I was in Chatsworth before. I've only been here 24 years.

Signal: Are these animals on the endangered list?

Mootnik: All gibbons are endangered, some more than others. The two rarest primates in the wild are gibbons. We house one species that's down to 2,000 left in the wild, and the only breeding in the United States is at our facility.

Signal: So you're doing something fairly unique. How many places are there in the United States that do what you do with gibbons?

Mootnik: We are the only one.

Signal: Have you had a lot of gibbon babies there over the years?

Mootnik: We've produced the most offspring of any place in the world in captivity.

Signal: What are the types of gibbons you have in Saugus?

Mootnik: We have the Javan gibbon, which is from Java. It's a light gray gibbon. They re down to 2,000 left in the wild. And there's only four breeding pairs in captivity in the whole world. Ricky, with 6-month-old baby / by RENEH AGHA-The Signal

Signal: How many babies have they had?

Mootnik: Six at our location.

Signal: What else?

Mootnik: Well, we have pileated gibbons; there are around 30,000 left in the wild. "Pileated" means capped. The females are a light buff color and the males are black. There are only about 11 breeding pairs in captivity in the world, and we have the only breeding pair at this time in the Western Hemisphere.

Signal: That's two. What else?

Mootnik: We have agile gibbons, and those are doing fairly well in the wild, even though they come from an area where there's a lot of deforestation — in Sumatra. We have a breeding pair and offspring. And we have the Siamang, which is doing a lot better in the wild, but again (they) come from Sumatra where there's a lot of deforestation. They're a very unique species. That's in a different genus, and they're the loudest of all land mammals.

Signal: When they sing, what are they saying?

Mootnik: (They give) a territorial call. Gibbons need about 50 to 200 acres in order for their family to survive, because they mainly eat fruit. So they patrol the area early in the morning and announce to their neighbors, "Don't enter this area." They do it every morning...
    Each (species has its) own territorial call, and females sound different than the males.

Signal: How can some gibbons of the same species be buff-colored and others black?

Mootnik: That's sexual dichromatism. Those particular species — males are dark and females are light, and they're born light; some species turn dark and go back to light. And then some species go from light to dark. It's quite complicated.

Signal: And some are all gray?

Mootnik: Exactly. And don't change color.

Signal: Which live longer, males or females?

Mootnik: Good question — just like in humans, right? Who's more stressed out? I think about the same.

Signal: How old are the males and females when they breed?

Mootnik: In captivity, they're capable of reproducing as early as 5 or 6 years of age, and in the wild, they'll stay with their parents for a longer period of time because it's difficult for them to find their own territory, because they're not strong enough to defend it. So in the wild, the females will stay with their parents until 8-1/2 years of age, and males around 10.

Signal: How long do they live? How long can they breed?

Mootnik: They can start breeding around 6; in the wild they're going to wait till, let's say, 9 or 10 years of age. There's a female — they're not sure of her age; they've been studying for 26 years — in Thailand in the forest, and she's probably around 36 or 37, that they're aware of. She's had six different mates. But she is not post-reproductive. The oldest living gibbon in captivity will be 58 in January. By RENEH AGHA-The Signal

Signal: How old is your oldest?

Mootnik: 31. And his cage mate, who he adores, is 9.

Signal: You say that one had six different mates. Are they polygamists?

Mootnik: They're serial monogamists, like people.

Signal: There can be more than one, but only one at a time.

Mootnik: They'll still visit the neighbors when their spouse isn't looking, too.

Signal: In your cages, do you keep just families together, or entire species?

Mootnik: Both. Because they're territorial, they don't like their neighbors, so it's important to keep them away from them, and you have to put visual barriers up from each other. But also, too, for the blood lines, it's important to keep them together.

Signal: Why is that?

Mootnik: If there's only a few breeding pairs left in captivity, it's important that you know who's the father.

Signal: So they can cross-breed among species?

Mootnik: Yes, that's true. And this is very interesting, too. I feel the term "species" isn't really a good term, that will have to be changed eventually, because tigers and lions can reproduce and have fertile offspring. And those are definitely distinct species.

Signal: Does the father ever help with the rearing of the young?

Mootnik: That's a great question. In the Siamangs, the father participates more than the other species. There is sexual dimorphism in that species; males are a little larger, so it's a little heavier for the female to carry. But in the wild, the female's the one who leads the family, and if she's going to have to go fast through the forest canopy, having that extra weight is harder on her. So around six months of age, the father will start to help carry the offspring.

Signal: How do you prevent inbreeding? Where do your different gibbons come from?

Mootnik: I have a great database, and I'm the stud book keeper for six species in North America. So I trade around the world. We just sent to England a pileated female, and in exchange we received a male — from a female we received from Zurich and we traded a male for her. And so a Javan gibbon that we have, who's now (7), will be going to England, and in exchange we'll be receiving a female for our 31-year-old male, another one.

Signal: It sounds like something a lot of zoos do. Are you a zoo?

Mootnik: Yes, we are. We're a member of the American Zoological Association.

Signal: How does one become the stud book keeper for six different species? What is your background? How does someone learn to do what you do?

Mootnik: I learned everything from the gibbons and museums and talking to people and a lot of reading. I have one of the largest libraries in the world on gibbons.

Signal: You've lectured around the world, haven't you?

Mootnik: Exactly. I spend one to two months a year in Asia, assisting the zoos and rescue centers with better care of their animals and species identification.

Signal: How do the zoos in Thailand stack up against zoos in America or Europe?

Mootnik: I guess in every country — in America, Europe or Asia, you have good zoos and bad zoos. In some countries they have very good zoos, and some not so much. But in Thailand, there are five major zoos there. One zoo is 2,000 acres, and two other ones are 500 acres, and they have some really nice exhibits. And they're very interested in improving, if ever they can. We were just entertaining two zoo directors and a general curator from Thailand (recently).

Signal: Are they really committed to preserving the species? You think of some places in Southeast Asia, and, well, people there tend to have a diet that's a bit more varied than ours. One would think humans might be a big threat to apes.

Mootnik: In each country it would vary, but in some countries it's real bad. In Thailand it's not a problem. But in some other countries it's very bad; they could use a gibbon for medicinal purposes, or the radius bone would be used for chopsticks in some countries. In some countries, they're eaten. In some countries, (young men) can achieve their manhood by taking the spirit of a gibbon by eating the gibbon. So in each country you have something to contend with.
    It's interesting for me, going into those countries to educate, because it's difficult to say, "I know a lot more than the people who work here, and listen to me and not them anymore." So I publish a lot of papers in scientific journals and I give them a workshop and it seems to be working out well.

Signal: Besides humans, what are the natural threats?

Mootnik: Besides humans would be leopards, which do climb trees, and pythons, as well, which could easily swallow a gibbon whole.
    The young could be in threat with large eagles, and then if there was deforested area, if a gibbon came to the ground — which they rarely do, even for water; they would rarely come to the ground — would be a tiger.

Signal: We hear about Brazilian deforestation; there's deforestation in Southeast Asia, too?

Mootnik: It's real bad there, too.

Signal: From construction?

Mootnik: For various reasons ... fires that are set on purpose; in Borneo they have a canal that goes all the way across, that dries up the forest and caused a lot of forest fires, and they're now trying to get a consortium to get that blocked so that the water can go all the way down.
    Unfortunately, the palm oil plantations — and everyone's interested in palm oil for their products — is taking over a lot of their forest area. So it would be great if we weren't using palm oil products. Everybody's interested in that. But the hardwood forests, people are interested in that in many countries. Everyone seems to have a part in the problem.

Signal: Are you alone in tackling these problems, or is there some umbrella organization that's involved in species protection on a bigger scale?

Mootnik: There are some organizations working that — let's say, in Indonesia, called the Gibbon Foundation, and their main purpose is saving all fauna and flora. They do give some grants to various individuals for working over there. But I am really the main person going to Asia to assist over there with all gibbons for captive management reasons.

Signal: You mentioned one species with a wild population of only 2,000. Is the population diminishing? Or has the decline it been arrested? Is it captive breeding going to bring it back?

Mootnik: It's very interesting, that problem. In Java, it's the most heavily populated island in the world. It's already got its problem right there. The forests are fragmented, so it's almost like islands within an island — they're not even connected, the forests. So some of these gibbons are just landlocked.
    There's one area where there's a small area with just one gibbon. And they live in trees that are as high as 200 feet, so it would be very difficult to obtain it, that (one) animal, to transfer it to another area. So we have a big problem in that respect, as well.

Signal: Can anybody own a gibbon in California?

Mootnik: It would be very difficult. California is one of the more strict areas. In fact, California is the only one in the United States that has its own quarantine just for primates entering the area. If you were to bring one in from out of the country, it would have to go through quarantine, as well. There are only 28 quarantines in the United States.
    There are a lot of rules that you would need (to follow). If you wanted a gibbon or a primate, you would need to have at least two years' experience, proper enclosures, and knowledge. But gibbons are endangered, so there is nobody who has any available, so it would be difficult to get one.

Signal: Who allows you to maintain gibbons?

Mootnik: Public health and USDA; U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Signal: Are there situations where people smuggle a gibbon into the country and they're caught and the ape is confiscated and turned over to you? Do you rescue?

Mootnik: Because I'm in Los Angeles and because there is an international airport, we have helped our government. In fact, there was one situation where someone smuggled two pygmy lorices in their pants two or three years ago. The person was arrested and the primates ended up with me until they went through a quarantine period and they were given to the Los Angeles Zoo after that.

Signal: Are there threats to your own population in Saugus? How did you fare through the fire a couple of summers ago in Bouquet Canyon?

Mootnik: (We were) very fortunate. Luckily we have someone who donates his time and helps with cutting the weeds down for us. I even cut the weeds down for the neighbors, as well, so we have a nice fire break, and we trim all the trees up, and we have a lot of volunteers who come by and trim up everything...

Signal: People drive right by your place when they go to Lombardi Ranch for their Halloween pumpkins and probably don't even realize it.

Mootnik: The only way you would know about it is if you heard the gibbons singing.

Signal: Are there diseases here that aren't in Southeast Asia, that impact the gibbons?

Mootnik: Yes, valley fever, so we have to control the ground-squirrel population. And we are very fortunate that we had a predator living on our property recently. I was very thrilled that a bobcat took up residency, had three kittens there, so she was keeping the (rodent) population down.

Signal: Was the bobcat threat to your gibbons?

Mootnik: Oh, no. She's fine. She's small enough. A cougar would be a problem.

Signal: How many people help you?

Mootnik: We have one person who's a staff person, and then we have resident volunteers, so maybe three or four people a day. We feed the gibbons eight times a day, 15 different types of food, so it's constant care.

Signal: What do they eat?

Mootnik: Fruits and vegetables. A little bit of meat that's cooked, and hard-boiled eggs and nuts and seeds.

Signal: You do some work with university classes, right?

Mootnik: Yes. It's great for us and also the students, who are able to (learn) and get extra credit for listening to me speak, and they have to write a paper. I try to entertain them to make it worth while.

Signal: Do they stick around? Take a lasting interest and volunteer?

Mootnik: Sometimes they do, yes.

Signal: Does College of the Canyons send students?

Mootnik: Yes, sometimes biology or anthropology classes come out for a tour; they do observations for the class.

Signal: Have any discoveries been made at your center?

Mootnik: Oh yes, many. That's the part that's most thrilling for me. In 1983 we discovered a new subgenus of gibbon and people were like, "Why was only Alan able to discover this? Why didn't we?" It's just that we happened to have this really rare gibbon here, and when scientists would obtain blood from what they thought was the same species, from a zoo, during a routine exam, it turned out it was the wrong species.

Signal: When it came to you it had been misidentified?

Mootnik: It was identified as the correct species and I had confirmed it, but in all the other zoos in the world, it wasn't the one that they had. It was the wrong species that looked similar.
    That is one of my specialties: species identification. When we looked at the blood and I sent it to the lab, the fellow said, "You made a mistake. This is not what their blood looks like; you've got to send it again." I said, "I know what I did." He goes, "You've got to send it again." And so it was published in two journals.
    So behaviorally, we're always coming up with interesting facts. And what I try to write about is everything that would help these animals do better in captivity. Nothing to hurt them. And we try not to ever stress our animals, and if they ever got stressed, I try to write about what causes that stress and how to remedy it.

Signal: What significant breakthroughs have you made?

Mootnik: I guess it's ongoing about familiarity. I just got a paper accepted for publication in the International Journal of Primatology. A lot of zoo officials who are very knowledgeable have always thought that if you had two orphaned gibbons in their country of origin, they would never breed, because they'll think they're brother and sister. I did a large study for 10 years to prove that that's not true. So it would be good for those particular individuals to (be) released back into the wild, if they were confiscated from the general public, in the country of origin.

Signal: How did you develop a specialty in species identification that other people don't have?

Mootnik: (By) spending too many years and hours in museums studying the animals there.
    I don't know if you've read about what happened with American Indians' items that they've donated — that there are a lot of chemicals that are put on them that are very harmful. So I dressed up, I looked like I'm ready for surgery or something when I'm in there, and everybody kind of thinks it's humorous, but I think it's the healthiest thing to be doing when you touch a lot of chemicals.

Signal: Tell us about Alan Mootnik. How did you get from there to here?

Mootnik: I grew up with "Tarzan" on television and I wanted to be his son. I knew I couldn't be Tarzan; I was too young. Where I grew up, too, we had an area that was kind of rural in the back, so we played in my "forest" every day after school. ... So when I went to the zoo when I was, like, 9 years of age, and I heard gibbons singing and got to watch them, I fell in love with them and I knew I wanted to take care of them at that time.
    I asked my parents if I could have a zoo so I could have a gibbon. I was told, "There's nothing in this world you can't do, but you're going to have to get a job." And you couldn't hurt anybody while doing it. No stepping on other people's feet. So I started working at 9 years of age and building enclosures, and it started with rabbits, pigeons and a dog.

Signal: What did you do after you got out of school? Did you work for a zoo?

Mootnik: No, I studied dental technology and realized that that wasn't my field. I could not be in an office. I liked being outdoors. So I decided that wasn't for me. It was great to know dental anatomy, but it doesn't really help with what I wanted to do.

Signal: We can be pretty sure your gibbons don't have bad teeth.

Mootnik: Right.

Signal: Do your gibbons have occasional medical problems? Do you have to bring in specialists?

Mootnik: Yes, I have learned, too, throughout the years, how to work on helping them, and we do have a veterinarian named Howard Martin who's very kind and helps us. He's also on our board of directors.

Signal: Who is on the board? Who's in charge?

Mootnik: I'm in charge, and we have a board of directors from various areas — in charge of museums, or lawyers and people like that, looking for people who could help generate revenue to help it go further.

Signal: Is this your full-time job?

Mootnik: This is what I do full time as a volunteer; I do not get paid.

Signal: It's a nonprofit organization?

Mootnik: Yes, and I only work 100 hours a week.

Signal: Do you have fund-raisers?

Mootnik: Yes, we had a fundraiser (last fall) which was very helpful. We'll be having one (Sunday morning). ... We'll have silent auction, food and an opportunity to see the place. I'll give a talk to everybody, question-and-answering, a good chance for people to meet each other.

Signal: Dumb question: What's the difference between a monkey and an ape?

Mootnik: Great question. It's a very important question. A simple (answer) is, an ape does not have a tail.
    An ape's brain is much larger than monkey's brain of the same weight. Their dentition, which is harder to see — their cusp and grooves look different. The placement of the scapula, let's say, on a monkey, would be more on their back. And apes have longer arms than their legs. Gibbons' arms happen to be 1-1/2 times longer then their legs.

Signal: Your gibbons must be real swingers.

Mootnik: They're the world's greatest acrobats. ... In the wild they can get going 35 mph, taking leaps at 50 feet at a time.

Signal: Can they outrun most predators?

Mootnik: Up above (in trees), yes; on the ground, not so fast. But they do walk bipedally, so if they were in a hurry, running, they'd always be on two feet. If they got tired, they'd just have to stop. They'd never be quadrupedal.

    For more information about the Gibbon Conservation Center, visit See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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