Alan Mootnick, the Director, died on Friday. I went to the Gibbon Center on Sunday to do some raking because that was all I could think of to do. It felt like a stupid and small thing, but they’re short-handed and it was something.
I guess several other volunteers felt the same way – I’d never seen the place less in need of raking. Which didn’t mean there was no raking to do, but for the first time I had to look for it.
It was a rainy day, and a sad one, of course. Alan didn’t just found the place; it’s infused with him. There isn’t anything I did or saw there that didn’t remind me of him in some way, and I’ve only been an occasional volunteer. I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone like G., who lives on-site.
G. unlocked the gate and I asked her how she was, which was a stupid question, but it was all I could think of to do.
She was impressively composed, given how long and how closely they had worked together, and said that she was just trying to keep busy, which, given the fact that she was caring for 40 gibbons, I’m guessing she achieved.
She hadn’t lost her pleasure in working with them. She’d left a rake and dustpan in one of the enclosures when she came to let me in. One gibbon was high up, swinging around with the dustpan and happily testing the limits of its noisemaking potential, and some others had gathered around the rake, which they had maneuvered through the chain link until it stuck out horizontally. It seemed like there was more to their artistic vision for it, but they weren’t sure how to proceed.
G. showed me some raking and shoveling spots and suggested that I take a wheelbarrow around and empty each enclosure’s leaf and debris bin.
“You can go around and say hi to everyone,” she said.
I do, in fact, have a tendency to say hello to the gibbons, if possible by name. I am embarrassed by this practice, because I know it’s silly and it’s anthropomorphizing. Each gibbon does get a name, but it’s not like the staff try to teach them their names like you do with cats or dogs. It’s more to help the humans who deal with them, I think. But I usually can’t help but say hello because it feels rude not to. I was a little embarrassed that the Gibbon Center staff had noticed, but G. didn’t seem to mind it.
So I slowly made the rounds with the wheelbarrow and said hi and tried to get a glimpse of everyone, but tried not to stay so long that I faked them out and made them think I had food or anything. U Maung, ever tantalizing, shadowed me along his enclosure’s sunscreen mesh, then swung quickly away when he saw me turn my head to him.
I went by Domino and Tuk’s enclosure – they’re the ones who had had to be separated while Tuk was sick. Domino still looks vaguely melancholy, but Tuk was in good form. She came over to check out the wheelbarrow – I had to quickly move the rake I’d thoughtlessly left within her reach – and then hung there and looked at me for a long time while her baby clung to her. Domino and Tuk’s baby. A happy ending, I thought, then realized that it’s really a happy ongoing. Much better.
I had a moment of eye contact with Betty and saw just a flash of Khusus and her new baby Winston. Drew, the very scariest gibbon, and Tint, her mate, had been placed in a zoo during my long absence this spring and summer. On the one hand, that was a bit of a relief, since she frightens the bejesus out of me, but on the other, it means she’s a puzzle I’ll never solve, so I have some mixed feelings about Drew being gone. Maybe we’ll meet again. I hope I have apples to throw to her if we do. And maybe some sort of plexiglass shield.
There were also a few new residents that I hadn’t met yet. G. had warned that two of the new females were very difficult, but I must have run into the mildest one – she brought a hunk of apple over to see what I was doing and retched at me amiably.
I still love that retching noise.
I heard a new gibbon noise this trip, too. I certainly don’t pretend to have heard them all, but it’s always fun to rack up a new one. In this case, a newer female seemed to enjoy throwing in “Ow!” during the hootfests. But not the injury kind of “Ow,” more the kind a raspy-voiced singer throws into a rock song. Joan Jett, maybe. It makes me wish another gibbon would learn to respond with “Get down!”
Instead they went with lots of whooping. They had a long and impressive competitive singing session while I was there, totally instigated and prolonged by Marlow the siamang. She acts all innocent, but she really likes to stir up trouble. I walked over to watch her puff her throat out while she sang and totally caught her mother Karenina making the face that you’ve seen on every parent who has a teenager with an electric guitar.
Yes, I know: Anthropomorphizing.
In addition to my raking duties, G tasked me with collecting the bigger rocks that had been washed free by the rain and chucking them into the stream bed. That’s one of the reasons I like going to the Gibbon Center: It reminds you of the simple satisfaction you get from things like heaving a good-sized rock and hearing it thud.
Also, collecting rocks can leave you with a very arty-looking wheelbarrow. Doesn’t this look like the owner is just about to run off and do a driftwood sculpture or some bark rubbings or something?
I don’t know if you’ve been in the field of gibbon entertainment as long as I have, but rock gathering is pretty high on the list of interesting things. I did the bulk of my rock-gathering next to Parker and Pierre, who were as intent an audience as I’ve ever had. Pierre is used to me now. He still tries to get my attention, but doesn’t shriek and carry on like he used to. Parker is still the quiet one, usually in the background. Even though Pierre seems to be settling down in general, she still looks like maybe she could use a quiet afternoon to herself, drinking tea and reading murder mysteries.
Here’s another young male, curious about me, but not into direct eye contact. That’s frustrating to humans, but it’s only polite in gibbon.
He seemed generally good-natured and I look forward to handing him his food one day. That will be a while, though – I need more training before I can handle feeds on my own, and there’s way too much going on for that, so I have busted myself back down to raking and lifting heavy things and, well, whatever they need.
I was happy and relieved to see how many volunteers seem to be rushing in with the same intent.
Here’s the thing: Every now and then I get bummed out and stop believing that it’s possible to really do anything in this world. It feels like politicians are too cynical, the bad guys have too much money and power, the gatekeepers are too caught up in their same old ways of thinking, and even striving against them is useless anyway, because the forces of entropy and inertia and general foulness just roll back over anything you manage to start.
I was upset when I heard that Alan was dying, but I was also terrified that everything he had worked so hard to build would get blown apart without him there to spearhead it.
I shouldn’t have worried so much. You don’t spend 50 years trying to preserve something you care about as much as Alan cared about gibbons and not think about what will happen to them when you can’t anymore.
The Gibbon Center will go on. They have staff – G. is amazing, and C. is a dynamo – and volunteers and a board and plans for years into the future. And they have care methods to share with other zoos and programs. And so many gibbon babies born this year alone.
And if all Alan Mootnick had left behind was that – the Center and the program and the peer education and the school tours and the describing and naming gibbon species and the extensive sharing of knowledge on how to keep one of the planet’s most endangered animals healthy and breeding – it would be an incredible legacy on its own.
But even more than all that, the Gibbon Conservation Center is a reminder that it is possible to do real, lasting good. It may not be possible to change the whole world at once, but you can, in fact, carve out a corner that you’re passionate about and make it tangibly better. It’s even possible that people will help.
It is possible to do good that outlasts you. It is possible to create a happy ongoing instead of just a happy ending.
And that, in the end, is the point.