Nick Hardcastle: Out here in Canyon Country near Santa Clarita, we're about as far away from the rain forests of Southeast Asia as you can possibly get. But that's the native home of some of the noisy characters that you're about to meet.
More than 40 gibbons live here at the Gibbon Conservation Center. It’s the largest group of these rare apes in the Western hemisphere. The Center helps protect the endangered species through research and breeding programs, and by letting the public get a close look at these entertaining creatures.
Chris, you’re on the board of directors here and you give public tours. What attracted you to a gibbon conservation center?
Chris Roderick: Well actually I met Alan Mootnick, the founder of the center, about 7 years ago. And if you ever met Alan you would know it’s impossible to say know.
Nick Hardcastle: Alan Mootnick founded the center in 1976. He was only nine when he saw his first gibbon and was instantly and forever fascinated. He became a world-renowned expert and poured his life savings into the Conservation Center. Mootnik passed away in 2011, but his legacy has continued.
So where do gibbons sit in the primate family?
Chris Roderick: Well, basically you know what apes are. You know of apes. There are four famous apes: There’s the gorilla, the orangutan, the chimpanzee, and the bonobo, for all intents and purposes looks kind of like a chimpanzee. Then there’s the fifth ape that no one has ever heard of. They’re from Southeast Asia and their called gibbons.
Nick Hardcastle: And because gibbons are quite small do you find that people often think they are a type of monkey?
Chris Roderick: People come in here saying the monkeys. But here’s a clue that even a 3-year-old gets. Monkeys have tails. They don’t need tails to get around through the trees. They swing through the trees sometimes up to 35 mph. They can make leaps of 50 feet between trees.
Nick Hardcastle: The gibbons’ natural habitat is in the rain forest. The staff here have tried to create conditions as close to the gibbon’s environment as possible. I met one of their caretakers who happens to be a fellow Aussie.
So Shane, what are you actually feeding them here?
Shane Hoare: So this is their morning protein feed. We've got some lentils here that have been cooked for them. We've got some fresh beans and also protein - a process protein feed.
Nick Hardcastle: You say that this is their protein feed in the morning. How many feeds do they get a day?
Shane Hoare: Get about eight feeds throughout the day.
Nick Hardcastle: That's a good life.
Shane Hoare: We like to spread it out so it sort of stimulates that natural foraging behavior that they get in the wild.
Nick Hardcastle: Out of the 19 species of gibbon, 18 of them are endangered or critically endangered. The biggest threat? Human beings. The wiping out of habitants, deforestation, poaching them for pets or for meat – it’s pretty clear that without successful breeding programs like this these creatures could become existent.
Gabriella Skollar: The baby’s name is Dennis.
Nick Hardcastle: And Dennis is absolutely adorable. Gabi is the director of the Center. She oversees the dating and mating. The mother’s feeding what she’s eating. Is that normal? Do they kind of eat solid food straight away?
Gabriella Skollar: Uh, not straight away. At age three to four months they start eating some solid foods.
Gabriella Skollar: Uh, we try to keep the families together until the offspring are old enough to reproduce.
Nick Hardcastle: The Center works with other zoos around the world to increase the number of gibbons in captivity. But the ultimate goal is to reestablish the population in the wild.
What is it about of gibbons in terms of the primate family that fascinated you more than any of the others?
Shane Hoare: I think they are very overlooked as an ape so everyone tends to look at the orangutans, the gorillas, the chimps. But these poor guys, everyone sort of overlooks them. It’s a real shame.
Nick Hardcastle: So the gibbons are like the underdog of the primate family. So they might not be the most recognizable primate but there’s no mistaking their unique sound. Gibbons are also famous for their singing, aren’t they. They wake up in the morning and everyone joins in a chorus. Can you tell us a little bit about the song?
Gabriella Skollar: Yes. So every morning at sunrise they start singing and every species of gibbon have their own song.
Nick Hardcastle: Can we participate in their songs as well? Okay so we’re going to join in with the singing.
Gabriella Skollar: Yes. We’re going to get them going. We’re going to try to imitate the vocalization and they will join in if they are interested to join with us and then other gibbons will join.
Nick Hardcastle: She has too poop. I’m sorry, not ready to sing I just have to do a quick poop, and then get back to you. [laughs]. So clearly asking him was a huge failure. And we’ve had to resort to plan B which is a recording.
Gabriella Skollar: This is a recording of the gibbon singing.
Nick Hardcastle: So when they hear this what is going to go through their heads? Are they going to be feeling like someone is going through their territory?
Gabriella Skollar: They’re going to hear the other gibbons singing and through the speakers. They’ll think oh the neighbors started singing so they might join in.
Nick Hardcastle:Gabby, thanks for showing us around and introducing us to all your beautiful friends. Is there a traditional gibbon way of saying goodbye?
KCET's Nick Hardcastle tours Santa Clarita's Gibbon Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation and study of gibbons. It's currently the only center in the U.S. that focuses specifically on gibbons.
Gibbons are small apes that are commonly found in countries like China, India, and Malaysia. These arboreal apes can travel up to 35 mph as they swing from tree to tree with their long arms. They are best known for their loud calling sounds and highly versatile and "acrobatic" energy. Currently, there are more than five species of gibbons representing all four genera at the center.
The Center was founded by the late Alan Mootnick, who developed a strong fascination for gibbons at the age of just nine. He later went on to become an expert on gibbons and created a "world-class primate breeding and study center."
As adorable as these loud mammals can be, they are also on the endangered species list. The center notes that their natural habitat is destroyed at a rate of 32 acres per minute.