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19 October 2006 - 05:53 AM

Rare Primate Embraces Fatherhood

Conservationists are thrilled that a purebred orangutan overcame respiratory illness and is thriving.

By Michael Gibbons

Our favorite simian respiratory patient is a father.

Readers may recall our earlier stories on Minyak, the purebred orangutan saddled with a recurring respiratory condition known as air sacculitis along with frequent bouts of pneumonia. Only the surgical removal of his air sac (never before attempted in a mature ape), the donation of a special air cleaning system for his cage,and the dedication and love of his keepers at the Los Angeles Zoo kept Minyak alive.

We’re pleased to report he’s not only survived but thrived. His vitality restored, Minyak eventually met and mated with Kalim, who gave birth to Berani, a female orangutan. Conservationists worldwide hailed this dramatic and joyous zoological victory. Orangutans are the most endangered (and the most intelligent) of the great apes.

Mother and baby are fine, although Kalim, hand-raised in the zoo’s nursery, had to be trained in maternal skills by staff members.

As for Minyak, fatherhood couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

“He lived the first 20 years of his life virtually in solitary confinement in a basement at Yerkes Primate Research Facility,” said Kirk Sullivan, public relations director for IQ Air North America, Santa Fe Springs, Calif. “It was a damp and lonely existence.”

Sullivan, who’s preparing a children’s book on Minyak, has interviewed several lab techs and zoo veterinarians, including a lab worker at Yerkes who used to break the rules and sneak into the ape’s basement each day just to sit with him so he wasn’t alone. She would smuggle him gummy bears as a treat.

How extraordinary is this red-matted resident of the Red Ape Rain Forest in the Los Angeles Zoo? Listen to Sullivan tell the “dart gun” story.

“The orangutans hate to be darted, but they have to be when the vets need to give them shots,” he explained. “The dart gun scares them — and it hurts. A new vet needed to dart Minyak to give him a shot of antibiotics. Minyak, of course, didn’t want to be darted, so he reached out of his cage quickly and grabbed the gun out of the guy’s hand. Minyak took the dart gun apart and handed the vet the pieces back through the bars. Minyak then leaned his shoulder against the bars so the vet could give him his injection in the shoulder.”

Anyone who visits Minyak can see how special he is, Sullivan swears. “He is a very old soul, but he is an innocent,” he said. “He will look at the people he cares for with love in his eyes — and there truly is a light in his eyes. Despite all his hardships, Minyak was able to maintain whatever that magic and wonder that is truly good about life.”

Michael Gibbons is senior associate editor of ADVANCE. He can be reached at mgibbons@merion.com.


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