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Minyak Article From the
LA ZOO newsletter ZOOSCAPE

Cynics might poke fun at the old adage that every dark cloud has a silver lining, but the ashy pall that spread across the Southland in the wake of last fall's wildfires really did bring a bright glimmer of hope for one resident of the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens.

Many Zoo members are familiar with the story of Minyak, the 24-year-old Bornean orangutan who came to the Zoo just more than two years ago. Minyak had been one of a small group of orangutans at the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta. As the Center shifted its research focus away from the red apes, the animals were placed in zoos and sanctuaries. Minyak was the last of his kind at Yerkes, and finding a home for him was difficult because he was something of a hard luck case. Though he was in stable condition, he had a long history of respiratory problems that began with tonsillitis when he was an infant and later included pneumonia and chronic airsacculitis -- a recurring infection of the air sac that in great apes extends from the larynx through much of the neck.

But Los Angeles Zoo animal keepers and curators believed they could give him a good home and that the drier climate of Southern California would prove beneficial. They also hoped that if his health improved, the genetically valuable ape might go on to father some offspring with the Zoo's three Bornean females.

Minyak did indeed respond favorably to the change of climate until winter of 2002 -- just as he was being introduced to the females.

"[As a result of past medical problems] his lungs are now scarred -- similar to a person with cystic fibrosis," explains Veterinarian Leah Greer. "It isn't actually cycstic fibrosis, which is a human genetic disease where the mucocilliary bodies in the lungs are dysfunctional and because they can't [be cleared], the lungs are chronically infected and break down. Minyak's lungs are doing the same thing, but it's from the chronic tonsillitis [when he as young] and, later, air sac infection draining down into his lungs. When we first adopted him we thought about getting him healthy and strong and then if he needed it -- if we got pushed to the last button -- we would remove his air sac. And that was what happened."

The groundbreaking surgery improved his condition, and afterward he and his keepers underwent a rigorous training program conducted jointly by Animal Health and Animal Care that enabled him to take all his medications, move easily between different holding areas and exhibit spaces, and be "nebulized" twice daily. It is interesting to note that Minyak uses a nebulizer voluntarily -- just as asthmatic humans do.

After many months in the Health Center, Minyak returned to the Red Ape Rain Forest last fall. At first he was fine, but as time passed he became raspier and Greer began to worry that he would have to return to the Health Center -- especially once demolition of the old gorilla habitat nearby began, kicking up clouds of dust.

Two years before Minyak came to Los Angeles, IQAir, a Swiss company that has specialized in air cleaning systems for almost five decades expanded its operations to North America and set up offices in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. During last October's wildfires, Executive Director Glory Dolphin felt compelled to try and help with relief efforts, so she and IQAir's Public Relations Director Kirk Sullivan took action that would eventually lead them to the L.A Zoo.

"We knew there was an emergency need in hospitals and evacuation shelters because of the amount of particulate in the air," says Sullivan. "People with respiratory problems were starting to have asthma attacks at very alarming rates. So we put out a press release offering donations to medical facilities in need. Then Dr. Greer contacted us. She had very sensibly put two and two together -- that an orangutan with respiratory problems would be in the same situation that a human being would. So what we had to do at that point is look at how to create a clean air environment for an orangutan, given the restrictions of his [living quarters], and Glory did a bang-up job of it."

"Basically I followed the same principles that we would for any human," Dolphin explains. "You have to look at environmental factors, something people don't usually consider at all. So we used diagnostic equipment to test the air. It seemed OK, but then when the heater kicked in the particle levels in the air went up about 10 times what they had been. So we said, 'Well, here's a factor right here.' It's the heater -- in addition to all the dust that will soon be coming from the construction. After that testing we put together a sort of boy-in-the-bubble design. We're going to supply really clean air and hope that over time this clean air -- just as it is in clinical studies that we're going -- will be enough so that when he goes out to the playroom or when he goes out in the exhibit, he's rested enough from breathing clean air in his bedroom that he can go around without any respiratory problems."

"The big challenge," Sullivan adds, "was that you want him to have as natural an environment as possible here so you don't want him shut off from people, you don't want him shut off from the animals. You want him to have that social contact and so as Glory said, we were making the boy in the bubble, but it was really just the opposite. How do you create that clean air bubble, but not enclose him in a bubble?"

Dolphin answers, "Pipe in enough clean air to create positive pressure so we don't have to encapsulate his environment."

In addition to providing and installing the air cleaning equipment, IQAir has also graciously agreed to maintain the system for the next five years. This will allow time for Zoo staff to calculate the cost of operating it, learn how it works, and observe the long-term health benefits for Minyak. Hopefully the team effort will pay off for everyone involved and the Zoo will establish two separate orangutan groups. Bruno's will be a nonbreeding group (since he is a Bornean-Sumatran hybrid the Species Survival Plan does not recommend breeding him) and Minyak's will hopefully produce offspring.

"The Zoo already [performed] a very innovative surgery to try to treat him," Sullivan observes. "He had been raised in a research facility and because of his chronic health problems no one else wanted to take him, but the L.A. Zoo jumped in and said 'We're going to give this guy a happy life...' I mean to be honest, the level of kindness that the people who are working with Minyak are showing in trying to make an orangutan happy -- not just healthy but happy -- is what impressed us."

"If he's able to have offspring that will be wonderful for us," Dolphin adds. "All we want to see is little babies. That's all."

Story by Sandy Masuo


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