Today: The amazing story of Alan Mootnick, the renowned and yet completely self-taught gibbon (a tiny ape) expert, who despite little money became a savior of the species.
How well known and widely respected was Alan? When he passed away suddenly at age 60 on November 4, 2011 from heart surgery complications, people came to his service from all over the world, a crowd so big, the chapel at Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles couldn’t hold them all. His obit was published in prominent newspapers across the globe and his passing was widely covered on the Internet and in other media. It was almost as if a rock star had died.
Yet it all started so simply. Alan fell in love with gibbons as a boy visiting the Los Angeles Zoo. “When I was nine I saw and heard my first gibbon,” Alan later wrote. “When I closed my eyes and listened to their voices it made me feel as if I was in the forest.” And he began a lifelong study of gibbons. But then tragedy struck. When Alan was just 15, his mother, who he was very close to, died and three years later, his dad also died and he had to grow up in a hurry.
After high school, Alan became a car mechanic to support himself and he took a two year dental technician course at Los Angeles City College. But he was an average student and found he had no interest in academics or in making dental supplies. Yet he loved to work with his hands and in addition to being a mechanic, became a welder and he remodeled and painted houses. But it was gibbons that had captured his heart. He studied them intensely and became actively involved in saving them for they as a species are fighting for survival; because developers are destroying the Asian rain forests that are their home.
There are 17 gibbon species, and adults typically weigh about 30 pounds, walk upright and have brains larger than monkeys. They are monogamous creatures who mate for life and raise nuclear families. In 1976, when Alan was 25 years old, he was given his first gibbon, “Spanky,” from an owner who could no longer care for him and Alan opened the Gibbon Conservation Center (GCC) in the Los Angeles area.
But where would Alan get the money to run the GCC and travel to far eastern nations to persuade their governments to protect the tiny gibbons? He painted houses with a friend, which is how he and his friend, an abstract painter, supported themselves. Alan also raised money from donations to the GCC, but he was never comfortable asking people for money and wound up selling nearly all of his possessions to support the GCC.
Despite having no academic credentials, and working long hours as a house painter, Alan wrote scholarly articles for academic journals, advised professors and other top primate professionals, and became one of the foremost gibbon experts. “He was the gibbon champion of the world right now, hands down,” Rick Barongi, the director of the Houston Zoo and a primate expert, told The New York Times.
The 5 acre GCC became well known for rescuing homeless gibbons, and the key to its success was Alan’s passion for it, not only as a gibbon expert but as a one man dynamo who served as its carpenter, electrician, painter, metal worker and inspirational source. It has just a tiny staff, who with equally dedicated volunteers, lovingly care for the gibbons. Some of GCC’s gibbons have been returned to the Asian rainforests to live free. Currently there are 40 gibbons residing at the GCC, the largest group of gibbons in the Western Hemisphere and among them the rarest of the species.
Alan was so dedicated to gibbons, he lived in the GCC and he shared his room with the staff, two of whom also live on the site, and with the volunteers and the gibbons. He and his team built the block walls and did the welding, plumbing and repairs necessary to run the facility and they used portable lights and even car headlights to work into the night, work which the team continues to do. “Yes, it has been a hard road …” Alan wrote. And added, “I have learned from negative situations and to turn them into positive ones and educated others from what I have learned.”
Alan is survived by the GCC team, including Gabriella Skollar, the Head Primate Caregiver and Research Assistant, who originally came to the GCC from Hungary in 2005, with just $200 in her pocket and no knowledge of English. Alan mentored her, and so she would have a home, shared his facilities and food with her and today she plays a crucial role in running the GCC. Other survivors include his sister Ronnie Weinberger, nephews Paul and Steve Weinberger, Aunt Jean Galanti, his cousins Geri-Ann Galanti and her husband Don Sutherland, both of whom are retired Anthropology professors, and his many friends and colleagues. He is survived as well by all the gibbons his dedication and compassion helped save and by all those gibbons that will be saved and will mate to perpetuate the species.
One new gibbon addition was born at the GCC on Christmas Day, 2011. Named “Alan Mootnick,” in honor of Alan, the staff calls him “Little Alan.” At birth, “Little Alan” weighed just less than one pound, which is normal for gibbons, and today he and his mom Phy Gyi and his dad Arthur are doing well. If you would like to see photos of this adorable little guy with his mom, please click here. This baby will touch your heart as he reminds us all how important this gibbon preservation work is.
Success Tip of the Week:
As Alan’s work shows us, there is nothing you can’t accomplish if you are passionate enough about it and willing to dedicate yourself to it.
Thank you to Geri-Ann Galanti, Don Sutherland and Gabriella Skollar whose help was invaluable in telling Alan’s story.
In the next KazanToday:
How a man borrowed $2500 and built a food empire.
Feb. 21 2012 - Corrections
1) "Gibbons are serial monogamous, and just like humans don't always mate for life. Some do, some don't."
2) "It is not true that some of the GCC gibbons returned to the forest to live free, it is a very difficult process to reintroduce a gibbon to the wild. I hope one day we can do it, it is our goal, beside protecting and breeding them in captivity." (Thank you to Gabriella Skollar)
If you are in the Los Angeles area, please visit the Gibbon Conservation Center. Their website address including their hours is: http://www.gibboncenter.org/ To read Alan in his own words please see http://sane-ramblings.blogspot.com/2012/02/dear-reader-following-letter-was.html. To learn more about Alan, please see his New York and Los Angeles Times obits http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/10/science/earth/alan-mootnick-who-gave-a-home-to-gibbons-dies-at-60.html and http://articles.latimes.com/2011/nov/08/local/la-me-alan-mootnick-20111108 To see a gibbon with a sense of humor, please click on YouTube video “Gibbon taunts tigers,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3CI8I5Si_U