Taking a little step to save a great ape

Mercury News

Vanessa Rogier is down with the monkeys.

She calls them by name. Talks to them as she makes her rounds at San Jose's Happy Hollow Zoo, where she is a marketing manager.

Rogier is a primate person -- monkeys, great apes, people, whatever. So, when she stumbled upon a simple way to help orangutans in Indonesia, she got pretty excited.

``We're making a difference,'' Rogier says, ``and that really tickles me.''

And how is Rogier helping orangutans?

By collecting old cell phones for them. No, she isn't giving the phones to the orangutans. (Though they would likely be more considerate with them than most humans.) Instead, she is gathering the old phones as part of a fundraising scheme that helps protect the endangered apes.

This is not the story of a massive global movement or a scientific breakthrough. It's the story of little steps, of doing what one can where one is. And sometimes people notice and join in. Monkey-see-monkey-do, if you will.

Turns out these are very bad times to be an orangutan. Development, fires and logging in Indonesia have put a huge dent in the forests where they live. They are preyed upon by hunters and poachers. Their number (estimated by preservation groups at 15,000 worldwide) is dwindling.

``If something isn't done to protect their habitat,'' Rogier says of the orangutans, ``in the next 10 years they will disappear from the world.''

But these are good times to have cell phones. There are an estimated 140 million cell phone subscribers in the United States. (No worries about extinction there.) And there is an increasing desire to tote models that are newer, smaller and more versatile.

But what to do with yesterday's version? The phones, like computers, are full of nasty toxins that are unsuitable for the landfill.

That's where Rogier and Happy Hollow come in. Since April, the zoo has accepted unwanted phones. With the help of the non-profit Wireless Foundation, the zoo sees to it that the old phones are refurbished and resold or properly recycled. The zoo's program is one of many across the country that turns old cell phones into donations for a variety of charitable causes.

Happy Hollow makes $1 to $10 for each phone resold and then turns the money over to the Balikpapan Orangutan Society-USA, which works to save wild orangutans.

How beautiful is that? A way to rid the Earth of excess cell phones while saving the great apes that after a stint on ``Queer Eye'' could be mistaken for our cousins.

So far, Happy Hollow has raised about $1,000. It's small bananas, but maybe it's just a beginning.

An orangutan story on the National Geographic Web site recently linked to the Balikpapan society, which linked to Happy Hollow's site and information about its cell phone program.

``Who knows who is reading about this cell phone thing,'' Rogier says.

Cell phones have arrived by mail from all over the United States. One came from the Netherlands. (Who knows?) Rogier says more than a dozen zoos have contacted her asking about the program. She's not worried about competition.

``The more the merrier,'' she says. ``There are 200 million phones out there. I just want a million.''

No, she's not serious. Then again, why not?

That would give her something to talk about on her next visit to the capuchin monkey exhibit -- wouldn't it?

Happy Hollow Zoo, 1300 Senter Road, San Jose, accepts used cell phones by mail and at the zoo's front gate every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. See www.happyhollowparkandzoo.org for details.

Hey! Have an only-in-Silicon Valley story? Contact Mike Cassidy at mcassidy@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5536.