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Iowa Is Campus For New Ape School

Azy and Indah are about to go off to school, but they certainly are not ordinary students.

They're orangutans, long-limbed, long-haired, bright-eyed primates who will become the first residents of the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, where Rob Shumaker and his associates will study their behavior and learning capabilities.

And, Shumaker says, they're as sharp as a tack.

The brother-sister duo - Azy is the male - will arrive Tuesday at a sanctuary being built south of downtown Des Moines after a 2 1/2-hour charter flight from Washington, D.C.

They'll become part of what is billed as the most comprehensive ape research facility in the world.

"The opportunities that lie ahead for them and this world-class research center are limitless," said Shumaker, the trust's director of orangutan research.

Shumaker has worked with Azy and Indah on language and communication since 1995 at the National Zoo in Washington. He developed a program that allows the orangutans to communicate their thoughts by selecting symbols on a computer monitor.

He'll be able to intensify that research at the Des Moines campus, which eventually will encompass 200 acres along the Des Moines River and house bonobos, chimpanzees and lowland gorillas along with orangutans.

"Only 30 acres are under development now," Shumaker said. "We've just scratched the surface. This project will be growing for a number of years."

Azy, 26, and Indah, 24, will fly to Des Moines in special crates carried by a Boeing 737 jetliner. The units are 7 feet long, 6 1/2 feet high and 4 feet wide, with heavy padding in the bottom, numerous openings that allow the apes to see out and a panel through which they can be given food and drink.

Townsend Engineering of Des Moines built the "transportation suites."

"They did an extraordinarily good job," Shumaker said. "They are the nicest transport suites I've ever seen for great apes."

Azy and Indah will be lightly sedated before the suites are loaded on a truck at the zoo. The truck won't leave for the airport until the apes are fully awake, Shumaker said.

"Hopefully, by keeping things calm, getting them into a nice routine, things will go smoothly for them," he said.

Once in Des Moines, handlers will move the suites to a truck, which will take the pair to the center about 15 minutes away.

"They should be in their new home by lunchtime," said Shumaker, who hopes to begin working with the orangutans as soon as Wednesday.,

"Working is one of the most familiar and comfortable things for them," he said. "Starting up with that right away is one of the very best things to make them feel at home."

Construction of the Great Ape Trust began in 2003 at the site of a former sand and gravel quarry. The project was spearheaded by Ted Townsend, whose family owns Townsend Engineering and who spent about $10 million on the first phase.

"What these people are proving is apes have a capacity to utilize tools, art, language and agriculture," Townsend said.

Azy and Indah were born at the National Zoo and have never lived in the wild. Part of what Shumaker finds so intriguing is their individuality. They learn in different ways.

Both are gentle and even-tempered, but Azy is more contemplative. He considers things for a while before acting. Indah is more impulsive. She'll go for the quick solution and if wrong, will keep trying quick fixes until she gets it right.

"Both eventually learn the same tasks, they understand, they comprehend," Shumaker said. "But how they get to it is very different."

The center also will help promote the conservation of great apes, whose numbers are threatened by habitat destruction and, in the case of mountain gorillas in central Africa, by political unrest.

"All are threatened with extinction (in the wild) in the very near future," Shumaker said.

Orangutans live only in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra in southeast Asia. Scientists predict they'll become extinct in Sumatra in the next five years and in Borneo in the next 10 to 20 years.

Sumatra has about 7,000 orangutans in the wild. An estimated 35,000 to 50,000 live in Borneo, where 10 percent of their habitat disappears every year, Shumaker said.

"The major thing is massive agricultural development," he said. "Once people begin moving into forests to transform them for other reasons, then you have immediate conflict with apes - shooting, poaching, taking infants for the pet trade.

"Believe it or not, there's still trade in body parts for souvenirs. It's having a devastating affect on orangutans."

Visitors will be allowed in the center from time to time to tour the facilities and watch the research. And while it's not a tourist attraction per se, it's still a plum for the city, said Greg Edwards, president of the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"I really do think that any project of this magnitude is going to have an impact on us," Edwards said. "It shows we're a progressive city and we're open to economic development such as projects like this. I think it says a lot for Des Moines, for Iowa."

One of these days, maybe Azy or Indah will have something to say about that, too.
By Chuck Schoffner