Monkey See Monkey Do
There was once a bunch of impossibly cute and endearingly musical primates swinging around a compound just outside the City of Santa Clarita. And then they moved to Santa Barbara County.
That’s how, ideally, the story will go for the Gibbon Conservation Center, a unique research, breeding and residential facility dreamed up and established by the equally distinctive Alan Mootnick. A native of Los Angeles and self-taught primatologist, Mr. Mootnick had first fallen in love with gibbons while watching Tarzan on TV as a kid.
It was the calls from the small jungle-apes in the background that hooked him immediately and permanently, leading to a life of immersion in the study of these rare, endangered animals. Mr. Mootnick became a world-renowned authority on gibbon biology and conservation, ultimately founding and funding (himself) the creation of the GCC in 1976. He continued to foot the bill until 1990 when the organization became a non-profit.
The sanctuary, which houses the rarest group of apes (they’re not monkeys) in the Western Hemisphere, currently has 38 gibbons, some of which came from zoos and others that were born there. Ivan, the oldest at 46 years old, ended up in Santa Clarita via Moscow, 30 years ago. The youngest at the Center is just under one year old.
“The baby’s dad is a first-time father who was really shy at first but has changed a lot since having his daughter,” said Gabriella Skollar, Director of the GCC since 2014. She explained that the place’s mission is “to promote the conservation, study, care and preservation of this rare species of primates from becoming extinct.”
In order to continue their work, the facility now needs to find a new home, and soon. Their lease expires in July of 2021.
When the GCC’s founder died in 2011 (surrounded by family and a recording of gibbon songs playing) “we lost ownership of the land and had to start paying rent,” Skollar said. “That’s part of why we’re relocating, but he’d actually always wanted to move since a more temperate climate would be better for the gibbons and also, we want to grow.”
At the heart of the expansion plan is the desire to have a classroom. “We want to have more educational offerings for children,” Skollar continued. “We currently invite school groups to tour and would like to add lectures, a zoo camp, plus have room for weddings, birthday parties, and other events.”
Areas being considered for the Center’s new home are Solvang, Lompoc, Santa Maria, or anywhere in SB County. “We’d had a spot in Lompoc we were hoping for, but it went into escrow before we could raise the money for purchase,” Skollar said. “We need to have at least fifteen acres; twenty would be better.”
As properties are vetted, there is also this to consider: The hills will be alive with the sound of music. “Gibbons sing at sunrise,” she pointed out. “It’s a beautiful sound, but this does add an issue to finding a place. I live on-site and it’s the best thing to wake up to. However our neighbors have to love it. We can’t just move somewhere without checking with them first and suddenly they have thirty singing apes next to them.”
Gibbons begin expressing themselves this way when only a few months old. “They vocalize when spying food on the way,” says Skollar, who originally came directly from Hungary to the GCC in 2005 as a volunteer. “Also, when they are playing and tickle each other, they giggle, they smile, and they laugh.”
The furry, roughly 14-pound creatures serenade, too. “When looking for a partner, they sing a solo song,” says Skollar. “The young males practice, sometimes for an hour at a time. Couples coordinate duets. They are so romantic.”
The GCC has, historically, maintained a team of about twenty volunteers. It works with Girl Scout and Eagle Scout projects, offers opportunities to learn how to prepare food, and teaches visitors and helpers about individual gibbons and family dynamics.
There are ‘Adopt a Gibbon’ and ‘Caretaker for a Day’ programs, as well as a gift shop where books, clothing and of course gibbon earrings can be found.
Donations to their relocation fund can be made through the GCC’s website (gibboncenter.org) where there’s also an Amazon wishlist related to the facility’s daily operational needs.
“A lot of people aren’t familiar with what a gibbon even is,” Skollar said. “But, once they come here, people fall in love with these creatures and this place.”
Gibbon Conservation Center
19100 Esguerra Road
Santa Clarita, CA 91390