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Careers in
Sanctuaries

by Alan Mootnick

My fascination with gibbons began at age 9 when I first heard them vocalizing at the zoo. Hearing their voices and eventually watching their movements gave me a sense of what it could be like for them in their native habitat. From that day on I wanted to care for gibbons and asked my parents if I could have a zoo of my own. I was told that there was nothing in this world that I could not do, but I would first need to earn money to support my animals. So I began by carrying the neighbors trash out for 10 cents a week to pay for the care of my rabbits and pigeons. Four decades later, I am now the founder and director of the Gibbon Conservation Center (GCC) that houses nearly 40 gibbons.

Unlike most primatologists, I did not come to the field via an academic route. I am entirely self-taught, and therefore it took a lot of hard work, but eventually there came a time when I felt able to call myself a primatologist. I had been caring for animals for 15 years and had a great deal of firsthand practical experience maintaining a center for captive animals. I researched the care of captive primates intensely before I housed my first gibbon. In the 25 years since then, I have acquired great insight into gibbon social behavior, taxonomy and captive management. I publish peer reviewed manuscripts on various aspects of gibbons, travel to SE Asia in both a lecturing and advisory capacity, and on a regular basis I am a consultant for zoos and rescue centers on captive management and taxonomy issues. Although my original motivation to be in this field was the simple joy of being around gibbons, and still is to a large extent, I now feel I can honestly call myself a primatologist.

Having your own primate center or rescue center takes a great deal of dedication. You can not just walk away from it. It becomes your life. It was my strong belief that someday the work would get easier that allowed me to put in the work required to run the GCC. From 1970 - 1995 I slept only 3 - 6 hours a night. This was a very unhealthy practice and made it very difficult for me to work on manuscripts. I also ran a construction business in order to support the center. Until 1990, when we went non-profit, I paid for 100% of the costs out of my own pocket. Over the years I have sold many of my personal assets to support the gibbons. Three years ago GCC was finally able to cover its own running costs, but we are still totally dependent on volunteers.

With the problems inherent in running a sanctuary, the most obvious being financial, it helps to be a jack-of-all-trades; mechanic, handyman, accountant, veterinarian, personnel officer, etc. With severely limited funds available, the more you can do yourself the better. You will need to have a lot of common sense, and be able to make very difficult decisions calmly. In some cases, a high emotional attachment to the primates can be a hindrance and detrimental to the welfare of the primates concerned. With as many tasks that need to be accomplished throughout the day it is beneficial to maximize your time. If you want to work in the countries of origin, previous travel experience in the area and a conversational level of knowledge of the native language will probably be compulsory in order to communicate with the local staff and liase with local governmental organizations. Some people will find the isolation distressing. Many centers are located away from any human habitation. It is also essential to be in good physical health, even if working in your own country, since the hours are long and the stress levels can be high.

It is important to read as much as possible on zoonotic diseases in the species you will be working with, and to understand health and sanitation procedures. For example, herpes simplex virus 1 & 2 (HSV 1 & 2) is carried by over 70% of the adult human population. If a gibbon became infected with either HSV 1 & 2, and was under stress they could die of encephalitis within 4 days. Some of the diseases that captive primates will come into contact with would not be found in their native environment, and thus they may not build up a resistance to it.

It is important to find a college that offers the courses that suit your needs; quite often they may have a strong anthropology department, but are lacking in primatology. You will need to demonstrate your willingness to work in an extremely competitive field.

You must be prepared to work with other animals, as primates could be the last animals they might allow new volunteers to come into contact with. Working as an animal keeper, in whatever capacity, will also give you the valuable experience you will need for moving into supervisory positions.

I have always found it important to be in top physical condition. I make sure that both I and the gibbons eat healthy foods and exercise daily. Primates should be housed in a stress free environment. It is important to learn how to communicate with your co-workers and understand human behavior. When you are working with volunteers, it is especially important to be sensitive to the feelings of others, or you will soon be without volunteers. It is also important to understand the culture of the countries of origin you plan to work in and to be able to communicate without insulating anyone. Rules of polite behavior vary from country to country; you do not want to alienate anyone through unintentional rudeness. Finally, learn everything you can about the primates you want to work with, and use that knowledge to the best of your ability. Be helpful to all and in turn you will be rewarded. If a person is focused, resourceful and has a very strong drive I feel that they would be able to pursue their career in primate captive management. It would be advisable to first work at a field site, primate center, rescue center, or zoo to understand more about primates first hand.

Rescue and rehabilitation centers are becoming increasingly more important. Community education can inspire the general public to become more involved and committed to saving primate species.

However, no one should consider this field as a way to make money. It is very much a labor of love. One is doing quite well by merely supporting a center through grants, fund-raisers, and donations, without having to use personal funds. Furthermore, you must be prepared to give your life to your work. The hours can be extremely long and it can be physically demanding and frustrating at the same time. Self-sacrifice is an inescapable necessity.

The study of primates is endless. One of the greatest rewards is the reproductive success of species that are nearly extinct in the wild. Knowing that you have contributed to the survival of these magnificent animals is very fulfilling, and if you work in a native rescue and rehabilitation centers, you will come into close contact with a part of the culture and environment which most tourists never see. Even if you decide that this is not a career path you wish to follow, your time spent at the sanctuary will serve you in good stead with any future employer.