Turning on the dirt road to the Gibbon Conservation Center (www.gibboncenter.org) in Santa Clarita, California, I had a random thought and asked my co-worker, Todd, who was driving, if monkeys (at that time I did not know that Gibbons are actually apes) screamed. “I don’t think so, I think they are quiet creatures,” Said Todd. Todd was wrong.
Maybe screaming isn’t the right word; it’s more like a tandem screeching that is quite unnerving. As the canyon walls trapped the sound it didn’t sound like a few apes, it sounded like hundreds as they chimed in at different octaves and durations. Luckily the outbursts were quite brief, so brief that I had trouble capturing the entire sound on video. The sounds were in such stark contrast to the silent tranquility of the area, for the most part. The gibbons are housed in chain link fence-type enclosures to allow them to swing freely between their branches and “sleeping pods” or “dogloos” which resemble plastic igloos. The monkeys love water and misters are provided for them in the summer months. The Santa Clarita valley gets quite warm. Even in late February we were seeking the shade of trees as we walked through the center.
Watching the gibbons’ acrobatics was entertaining but when one happened to “walk” on the ground it was quite stunning. Walking upright with limbs not unlike our own it was quite unsettling. As a breeze caught their long coats of fur it was beautiful. The gibbons seem to be very contemplative and resourceful, munching contently on a piece of grass; one even used a bamboo shoot as a tool to retrieve a tasty morsel, which had dropped into a bush. It was not a stretch to believe that we had some connection to these magnificent creatures staring back at us with their intense, but kind, eyes not. The gibbons watched us carefully as we approached. Previously sedentary, the gibbons seemed to spring into action for the audience. They entertained for us sometimes pausing for photographs, other times swinging playfully from branch to branch and from ceiling to floor, avoiding the camera lens. Mischievously playing to get our attention, the gibbons swung up to their sleeping areas and disappeared behind a structure so that Todd and I were left searching for a glimpse.
The Gibbon Conservation Center located about 40 minutes north of Santa Monica at 19100 Esquerra Road; Santa Clarita 91390 is open to the public every Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 am until noon. It is very important, because the gibbons can contract airborne illnesses, that if you have any visible signs of illness the staff will not allow you into the center. There are several guided tours starting at 10:00 am. I highly recommend going on the tour, it is very informational and you get some fun facts about the gibbons, such as the gibbons eat about eight (8) times and day, a diet of fruit, leaf greens and vegetables, as well as have sex five (5) times a day! The females at the center are on birth control to control their numbers. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to touch the gibbons. As cute and cuddly as the gibbons appear I am not quite sure that a close encounter with them wouldn’t leave you with substantial wounds. Also, please note that the signs for “Restrooms” lead to a single Andy Gump facility and the “gift store” is actually where you bought your tickets. It seems deceiving but they actually have some great merchandise. I got several magnets, a T-shirt depicting a gibbon on my back (awesome for puns around the office), a plush Gibbon, and several miniature figurines. There were also various publications and pictures for purchase.
Background on the center from their onsite brochure: “The Gibbon Conservation Center, established in 1976 by Alan Richard Mootnick (January 23, 1951 – November 4, 2011), a self-taught primate specialist, currently houses the rarest group of apes in the Americas. with 43 gibbons, including species representing all four genera. Gibbons are small arboreal (tree-dwelling) apes that are found in tropical and subtropical rain forest of Southeast Asia, South China, Bangladesh, and Northeast India. Gibbons are the most diverse group of any apes with 19 existing species divided into 4 genera.” Chris Roderick, a Board of Directors member, said that though the center has been at this location for 40 years, the center only began giving tours in the last 5 years to promote the education of the public on the plight of the gibbons due to human destruction of their natural habitat. The center believes if people can see that the animals are living beings they might think twice about destroying their habitat and supporting industries that facilitate the destruction. In addition, studies are done with the gibbons to further science as well as loan animals to zoos throughout the country.
A particularly interesting attraction is Javan gibbon named Ivan. Ivan is now 43 years old. A typical gibbon lives for 25 years in the wild. I know that some people do not believe in keeping animals in captivity for any reason, the education and research that is done at the center is helping to preserve the gibbon population in the wild. There is a quote that is prominent at the center: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we have been taught.” ~ Baba Dioum, a Senegalese Conservationist.