Sherry Broder


Rusti Will Stay at Honolulu Zoo

Saturday, February 14, 2004

The sad saga of Rusti the orangutan's search for a home came to a happy ending yesterday after the city struck a deal that will provide the great ape with a large new enclosure at the Honolulu Zoo and make him a permanent resident.

Rusti's owners, the Orangutan Foundation International, agreed to construct the new habitat on a 4,000-square-foot site near the zoo's tortoise exhibit.

The $200,000 enclosure will be built around a tall banyan tree that Rusti will be able to climb, and should be completed by August.

Foundation president Dr. Birute Galdikas said Rusti's habitat will be "one of the best in the world."

"We are absolutely delighted that Rusti will be able to spend the rest of his life in a banyan tree here at the Honolulu Zoo," she said.

The hairy orange creature became a favorite at the zoo after he arrived in 1997 for what was supposed to be a short stay. But various plans to build Rusti new quarters elsewhere fell apart as the years went by, and he remained in an old cage that was small and sparse by modern zoological standards.

Rusti sometimes appeared to sadly sulk in a corner, and his plight touched Honolulu residents and outraged many animal lovers. O'ahu children grew especially fond of Rusti, and many eagerly followed any news of plans for him to leave the zoo.

"All you have to do is look at the faces of the children who come by and enjoy interacting with this wonderful creature to understand that truly, he belongs here in Hawai'i, here in Honolulu," Mayor Jeremy Harris said at a brief ceremony outside Rusti's old cage.

Lyn McGregor, a longtime zoo volunteer, said she had lost sleep worrying what would become of Rusti.

"Now I can sleep easy," she said. "I don't see why they didn't do this in the first place."

Harris said the zoo's master plan focused on island ecosystems and didn't include space for an orangutan.

The Orangutan Foundation International will remain Rusti's owner, and will continue to pay for his food. The city will pay for maintenance of the new enclosure and for Rusti's healthcare.

Zookeeper Tyris Perreira, who has cared for Rusti for seven years, said he's happy most of the time, and is usually well-behaved by ape standards.

"He's a sweetie," Perreira said. "He likes to hold your hand, and he'll even kiss your hand. He's very gentle."

But Rusti clearly needs a new home, she said.

"This is a really antiquated exhibit, over 50 years old," Perreira said. "Zoos and sanctuaries are moving toward a more natural setting like they would have in the wild, instead of a concrete floor with caged fencing."

Rusti is healthy and should have a long future ahead of him, she said. He's 24 now and could live to be 65.

Rusti is descended from Borneo and Sumatra orangutans, and has been sterilized. Galdikas said most modern American zoos only accept orangutans from a single subspecies that can be bred, and Rusti would have had no trouble finding a home if he had fit that criteria.

"They would have been bidding for him," she said.

Rusti has always had a hard time fitting in. He was born in captivity in Seattle, and his mother rejected him while he was still an infant. He was bullied by other orangutans, and was raised by a series of human foster parents before ending up in a small indoor cage at the private Scotch Plains Zoo in New Jersey.

Earlier plans called for Rusti to live in a sanctuary with up to 20 orangutans on the Big Island, but it was never built. He was later headed for a special cage at Kualoa Ranch in Windward O'ahu. The ranch dropped the plan last month amid opposition from animal-rights groups that wanted Rusti sent to a sanctuary in Florida.

Lauren Moriguchi, who was escorting a field trip from Koko Head School, said she's glad Rusti is staying here.

"He's very popular with the kids," she said. "There are a lot of small monkeys, but it's nice to have something bigger that the kids can see."

Rusti didn't seem too impressed with the hoopla surrounding the new plans. He turned his back when Harris stepped up to talk to him, and promptly threw a lei of fruits and vegetables that had been prepared for the occasion.

Harris later succeeded in hand-feeding Rusti, who is fond of dried apricots, pineapples and oranges. Rusti spat out a celery stalk Harris offered, but reconsidered after the mayor dipped it in peanut butter. Harris graciously accepted Rusti's orange peels after the ape finished sucking on them.

Orangutan foundation attorney Sherry Broder said that as Rusti's lawyer, she's confident he'll be happy in his new home.

"I think he's getting a wonderful deal," she said.

Broder said Rusti didn't throw his lei because he was mad at humans for taking so long to find him a real home.

"I think he was using his best intelligence, and he prefers to eat it rather than wear it," she said.

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