It’s been less than a year since Leon and Isabella met, initially separated by a fence. At 10 years old, Isabella is two years his senior, and both feel a little strange about being forced to live together. Their abode, a spacious outdoor enclosure and large indoor facility at the Natural Science Center in Greensboro, has slowly started to feel more like home, and the more time passes the more people say these two are falling for each other.
Amanda Bissert, the gibbons’ primary keeper, said there are fewer than 4,000 Javan gibbons in the wild, making reproduction a priority in captivity. Like people, the primates usually only have one offspring at a time, and there are only two other facilities in the country that keep them. The “silvery gibbons” typically partner for life, and with no mating season, the science center staff is already making preparations.
“At first I wasn’t sure about it, but she’s starting to grow on me.,” Leon said. “We’ve only got each other, and this life is cushy enough that we have almost double the life expectancy that our ancestors did.”
Bella’s calm demeanor is a nice complement to his occasionally aggressive tendencies, Leon admitted, but more than anything it comes down to enjoying each other’s company, swinging around their enclosure in the mornings or making fun of the center’s visitors.
Bissert noted that Javan gibbons can move as quickly as 35 miles an hour when swinging by their arms, which allow them to reach about three feet. She said the duo is usually active during her daily 2 p.m. keeper talk and are starting to draw closer to each other.
“I wasn’t really sure what to make of him at first,” Bella said. “The more we got to talking, though, we realized we had a lot in common — both coming from the same facility in California, our grandmothers’ grew up in the same part of Java and we both like red peppers. Leon can actually be pretty sweet sometimes, and let’s be real — I don’t have many other options for companionship.”
Bissert said Bella is picky about her apples, preferring reds to green or yellow, and Bella said Leon would always let her have her choice. Both said they felt a lot of pressure to be together — the keepers’ hints at romance were less than subtle —and to an extent they have tried to hide their evolving feelings for each other. Still, Bissert has seen Leon put his arm around her and the two huddle together for warmth when it’s colder, and they openly groom each other.
Bella refuses to admit that there is anything between them to Bissert or the other keepers, but Bissert finds that hard to believe. Each time Bissert has tried to approach the enclosure when the pair are singing together — a tell-tale sign of compatibility — they have stopped, but Bella’s long melodies and Leon’s responses are a dead giveaway.
Leon admitted he was trying to bulk up to impress Bella — at 16 pounds he isn’t much bigger than she is — but Bella said she would rather he let her have a bigger portion of their daily food bucket.
“Size isn’t everything, but if Leon is concerned about his image he should do something about the hair sticking up on the top of his head,” Bella quipped. “I know he likes to act like he’s really intelligent with his ‘puzzle feeders’ but it is hard to take someone seriously with permanent bedhead.”
Both of the gibbons are very smart, Bissert said, but Leon is often given “puzzle feeders” that involve a little bit of work to extract a morsel from a container. Staff is also trying to train Leon to paint, but so far he hasn’t shown much interest.
“I mean, what can I really contribute that’s new to the art world?” Leon said. “When I approach the canvas I am just overwhelmed. Eight is kind of a late age to pick up a new skill and I know my pieces are just going to come out looking like knock-off Picassos. Hey, do you think there is any money in that?” Editor’s note: Quotes from the monkeys are the reporters interpretation of their body language, I’m pretty sure.