Rusti the orangutan, shown here in February, might find a permanent home at the Honolulu Zoo if approved by the City Council.

‘Red flags’ cited
in Rusti proposal

A former zoo director fears
the city could be liable if the
orangutan were to harm anyone

A former director of the Honolulu Zoo is questioning whether a partnership between the city and the owner of Rusti the orangutan could leave the city liable if the animal ever hurt anyone.

City & County of Honolulu

"There are many red flags in this proposal. The one I fear the most is that a keeper or zoo visitor will be injured or killed by this large, strong animal," said Paul Breese, the Honolulu Zoo's founding director.

Citing similar concerns yesterday, the City Council Parks Committee deferred accepting the Orangutan Foundation International's "gift" of a new, $200,000 enclosure for Rusti at the zoo.

Accepting the cage was attached to accepting the foundation's six-page agreement that keeps Rusti at the zoo permanently.

Mayor Jeremy Harris and Birute Galdikas, president of the foundation, signed the agreement when they announced Feb. 13 that Rusti would be staying at the zoo permanently. The deal does not go into effect until approved by the City Council.

Rusti, now 24 years old, has been staying "temporarily" at the zoo for seven years, waiting for the foundation to build him a permanent home.

At yesterday's Parks Committee meeting, members questioned:

>> Why the agreement holds the foundation and its employees harmless for "all loss, damage or injury to any people or property that is related in any way to Rusti," the animal's habitat or foundation employees, unless they engage in illegal activity. Rusti will mostly be cared for by a foundation employee.
>> Whether a provision in the agreement allowing a foundation collection box by Rusti's cage would violate Kapiolani Park Trust rules against commercial activity in the park, which includes the zoo.
>> What would happen if a proper enclosure for Rusti cannot be built for the $200,000 specified in the agreement.

Jon Van Dyke, a University of Hawaii law school professor, told the committee on behalf of the foundation that it should not be liable for accidents with Rusti or other orangutans put in the cage, any more than the donor of a building at the UH would be held responsible if it fell down and injured people years later.

Van Dyke also said that foundation fund raising at the zoo will only take place if approved by the city and that it will pay whatever is necessary to build Rusti's enclosure.

Barry Fukunaga, director of city Enterprise Services, told the committee the agreement "is doing nothing more than what's already been done the past six or seven years" by verbal agreement.

Councilwoman Barbara Marshall noted that the foundation tried unsuccessfully for years to build a sanctuary on the Big Island but never did. She asked Fukunaga to research what happened and report back to the committee at its March 30 meeting.

Councilman Gary Okino said he wants the foundation to agree to a "reciprocal indemnity provision," taking some responsibility for liability if there is an accident.

Breese, a former zoo director, was not at yesterday's committee meeting, but said the agreement, as written, "would be very bad for the Honolulu Zoo."

It appears to provide "unrestricted, unsupervised visitations into Rusti's enclosure by this group at any time, including giving Rusti's cage key to them," Breese said.

City Managing Director Ben Lee dismissed Breese's safety concerns, saying that "people who care for Rusti are zoo staff or the OFI caretaker, who really know how to handle animals."

Orangutans have a strength seven to 10 times greater than humans, said Ken Kaemmerer, curator of mammals for the Dallas Zoo.

"These animals are so intelligent. They have moods just like you and me. They can have a bad day and you may not realize it, but the way they express that is to grab hold of you and bite you."


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