Apes in the Desert : Self-Taught Expert on Gibbons Seeks Nonprofit Status for Research Center

Times Staff Writer

At sunrise each day, Alan Mootnick's chorus greets the dawn with a yammering of wild hoots, filling the desert north of Santa Clarita with the exotic cacophony of an Asian jungle.

Mootnick runs the Gibbon and Gallinaceous Bird Center, home to up to two dozen gibbons, the small, monkey-like apes who claim--loudly--the title of noisiest land mammals on earth.

It is unusual for a construction worker and house painter such as Mootnick, whose formal education ended in junior college, to head a zoological research institution. But Mootnick is a far cry from the usual construction worker.

Not many of them publish scientific papers in scholarly journals, or play host to university researchers with doctorates who come to study with them. Not many receive accolades from university researchers and zoo administrators as leading experts in wildlife biology.

Mootnick does.

Self-Supported

Mootnick has run the center--indeed, he is the center--for 10 years, supporting it out of his own pocket, simply because he thinks gibbons are worthwhile. It costs him about $30,000 a year, he said.

He is finishing the paper work to apply this month to California and federal tax authorities for recognition of the center as an educational institution. With tax-deductible status, he said, he hopes to attract grants that will allow him to give up construction work, concentrate on writing research papers, and perhaps move his gibbons to a new home somewhere with a milder climate, like Ventura.

He runs the center like a scientific institution. Scholars from American and foreign universities come there to observe gibbon biology and behavior. He has published 10 research papers in scholarly journals such as the American Journal of Primatology, Cell Genetics and Cytogenetics and works of the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.

His own formal education, however, consists of a diploma from Birmingham High School and a 2-year dental technician course at Los Angeles City College. He never worked as a dental technician, he said, because "I hated the idea of being cooped up in a little office, staring at tiny objects." He found painting and remodeling houses more satisfying and runs his own business.

Mootnick shrugs off the observation that few manual laborers with little more than a high school education could write papers acceptable to scientific journals published for university-based scholars.

"If you get good facts and can prove they're right, background isn't such a problem," he said.

The academic community is impressed, however.

"What he's done is remarkable," commented Joe Erwin, a biology professor at the American University in Washington and editor of the American Journal of Primatology from 1980 until May of this year.

"Mootnick has worked very hard to establish credibility with the scientific community against what I think were overwhelming odds," Erwin said. "It's quite difficult for someone who hasn't gone through formal training to be able to write a paper that is in the right format, properly scientifically documented, and get it published in a journal that is refereed by experts in the field. It's difficult for someone with his background to establish a strong reputation, but his reputation is quite good."

Richard Tenaza, a biology professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton who is usually named by other primate researchers as one of the handful of gibbon experts in the country, said he was surprised to learn that Mootnick had no formal education in the field. "He's very impressive on gibbon taxonomy--better at it than I am," Tenaza said.

Taxonomy includes classifying individual animals as members of one of the nine species of gibbons and many subspecies, which often look alike--a problem that is compounded by interbreeding of species in zoos. When other biologists and zoo administrators are stumped in classifying a gibbon, Tenaza said, they send for Mootnick to render judgment.

Recognizing Cries

"Alan is the epitome of the kind of person who teaches himself through dedication and determination," said Rick Barongi, curator of mammals at the San Diego Zoo. "People in our field should learn from him not to judge others by the number of degrees they have."

Mootnick is "one of only two gibbon experts in the United States," Barongi said.

"I can call Alan on the phone and play a recording of a gibbon's vocalization, and he can tell me right off what species and subspecies it belongs to. Only one other researcher in the country can do that. And he has a Ph.D. and works at the Smithsonian."

"He's collected some unique information on a diverse group of gibbons, including some species that were almost unknown to science," said Don Lindburg, animal behaviorist for the San Diego Zoo and former primate researcher at the University of California.

"He's very well-connected in the gibbon world. He knows every researcher who's ever looked at a gibbon."

Gibbon Census

Also, every gibbon. One of Mootnick's research projects was a census of all the gibbons in North America. He counted more than 600 in zoos and scientific institutions. He estimated that because of federal restrictions on the sale of the animals, if any gibbons are still kept by private owners, the number is probably less than a dozen.

Because all gibbons are classed as endangered, since the mid-1970s the federal government has allowed only zoos and other accredited institutions to import them, and then only animals that were born in captivity or captured before the law went into effect.

Until about five years ago, Mootnick said, he sometimes acquired animals that had been kept as pets, but that source disappeared as legally purchased animals died and could not be replaced.

Although they are cute and appealing, and their ability as natural acrobats makes them a delight to watch, life as a pet is psychologically harmful to gibbons, he said. They identify too closely with humans, lose their identity as gibbons, and become confused.

Mootnick lives in a former machine shop on the 5-acre center in a remote area north of the city. He asked that the exact location not be described because he fears vandals and intruders.

Rare, Expensive

The animals live in tall cages equipped with ropes, trapezes and perches to give them leaping points. The center houses 14 gibbons, "which is about average," he said. The population has fluctuated from a low of seven to a high of 27.

The center operates under 12 permits from county, state and federal health and animal welfare agencies, "as many as a zoo would have," Mootnick commented.

His gibbons are not used in medical experiments, he said. Because gibbons are rare and expensive and do not tolerate confinement in small cages, they are not good subjects for medical tests, he said.

Although gallinaceous birds--game birds such as grouse, pheasant and quail--are still in the center's name, none are housed there now. He once kept more than 100 there, but lately he has concentrated on gibbons and is interested in studying birds only in the wild, Mootnick said.

Founded in 1978

He began collecting gibbons when he lived in North Hollywood in 1971, he said. He founded the center in 1978, keeping the animals on 2.5 rented acres in Chatsworth until 1981, when he bought the Santa Clarita Valley site.

"Some people like elephants or tigers, and I just happen to like gibbons," he said. "I've been fascinated by them since I heard them vocalize in the zoo when I was about 7 years old."

The piercing howl of a gibbon is music to his ears, said Mootnick, calling them "the songbirds of the primate family," the zoological classification that includes apes, monkeys and humans.

The cry, which Mootnick said can be heard for 2 to 3 miles, is primarily a gibbon's way of declaring to other gibbons in the wild that he has staked out a foraging territory and does not welcome competitors.

It takes such a great amount of strength for a small animal--adult gibbons weigh from 15 to 30 pounds, depending on their species--to make such a loud noise that the cry proclaims to other gibbons that the noisemaker is in good shape, capable of repelling intruders.

Liked by Neighbors

There have been no complaints from the neighbors in the sparsely inhabited area, Mootnick said. "On the contrary, some of them have told me they have friends over to hear the gibbons, that it gives the neighborhood something special," he said.

An informal survey of neighbors backed him up. "We like them," said Sue Smith, who lives about a mile away. "We hear them every morning and sometimes at night. They're like the coyotes, a kind of a nice noise."

"They're no bother," said Sandy Kidd, who lives about 2 miles away. "We have friends over sometimes and they ask 'What's that noise? Coyotes? Wild turkeys?' We tell them, no, it's a bunch of little apes that live in the canyon. They can hardly believe it."

"My jackass makes a worse noise than they do," said Jack Moore, who lives about a mile away.

Gibbons are small apes, astonishingly agile natural acrobats who almost appear to fly as they swing through the air, leaping from perch to perch, propelled by their long arms and using their feet as hands. They can reach speeds of 30 m.p.h. in forest treetops and hurl themselves across gaps up to 50 feet wide, Mootnick said. They are the only primate, except for humans, that always walks upright.

They are endangered throughout the countries of their natural range--which includes southern China, Burma, Indochina, and Indonesia--because agriculture is displacing the jungle and because some Asians eat them and believe their ground bones have medicinal properties, he said.

The combination of remodeling houses, caring for the gibbons and preparing and writing research adds up to a workload that sometimes leaves him only 3 hours a night to sleep, Mootnick said.

He speaks wistfully of acquiring tax-deductible status and attracting research grants.

"I could quit the construction business and just write papers."

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