Saturday, May 29, 1999

Zoo’s orangutan
may bid aloha for
lack of facility

Delays from permits for a
sanctuary on the Big Isle may
send the great ape back
to California

By Lori Tighe


Rusti the 275-pound orangutan sat in his Honolulu Zoo pen listening to two men who will determine his fate. His expressive brown eyes seemed to say, "Can't we work this out, gentlemen?"

One man, Ken Redmond, director of the Honolulu Zoo, will evict Rusti from Hawaii by July 1 if work on a Hilo sanctuary for orangutans hasn't begun.

The other man, Steve Karbank, with Orangutan Foundation International, is determined to keep Rusti in Hawaii.

The state agreed yesterday to the lease between the Orangutan Foundation International and the Hawaii County Panaewa Zoo to build a special sanctuary for retired orangutans.

But the delays from needed permits and negotiations could send Rusti back to California.

The 28-acre sanctuary would take in orangutans who have been in captivity and are no longer wanted, Karbank said.

They would come from circuses, private zoos, as pets or as research animals.

Orangutans are considered one of the world's 10 most endangered animals by environmentalists.

Rusti, 18, came to the Honolulu Zoo two years ago on a "temporary basis" until the Hilo sanctuary could be built. He stayed in a 1950s concrete pen not up to modern zoo standards for great apes.

"It's always been 'temporary.' The permitting and negotiation process can go on for years. We can do a lot better for him," Redmond said, rubbing Rusti's cheek.

"We would be criticized if this was his long-term facility."

Today's zoos care for great apes in open environments replicating their native homelands with plenty of grass and trees to swing from, Redmond said.

"He won't go back to California," said Karbank, determinedly. "We're going to meet the timetable."

Hilo officials expressed willingness to cooperate in the permitting process, Karbank said. The sanctuary will cost $4.4 million to build.

The state also agreed yesterday to contribute nearly $1 million to the cause. The Orangutan Foundation International will raise the rest.

Raised by humans in captivity, Rusti grew up in a private zoo in New Jersey.

"He's extraordinarily sweet and gentle. He especially likes women," Karbank said.

His zookeepers and volunteers who talk story with him, show him videos and keep him company have fallen in love with his charm. When their eyes meet his, he glances down in seeming shyness. His favorite movie is "Gorillas in the Mist," and he loves wearing boxes on his head.

The red-haired ape attracted a dozen or more visitors at the zoo in just an hour yesterday.

He sat in the front corner of his pen with his 3-foot-long arms stretched upward clutching the chain-link fence, and he peered back at the people.

Orangutan males lead solitary lives, so Rusti isn't necessarily lonely. But when Redmond folded up his chair preparing to leave with Karbank, Rusti hopped up and slapped the interior door to his cage.

"He's making a statement," Redmond noted with a smile.

Rusti settled into another corner with his back to the men and pouted.


People interested in contributing toward the $3.4 million to build a sanctuary for Rusti should contact Orangutan Foundation International:
Bullet Call: (310) 207-1655.
Bullet Web:

E-mail to City Desk

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