Zoo Miami trainer Willy Coto competes to help orangutans

By Gary Alan Ruse….

Willy Cotto is pictured at the orangutan exhibit at Zoo Miami.

Willy Cotto, 23, has a passion for education and for rainforest wildlife, and he hopes to unite those interests in his quest to be selected as one of 10 people to participate in a program to help save endangered orangutans.

Cotto, a senior at Barry University, grew up in Palmetto Bay and attended Palmetto High School. Scheduled to graduate in May, he has applied to George Mason University in Virginia, but his immediate goal is many more miles away.

“I’m hoping to be in Indonesia July 1 with this team,” Cotto said. “I saw this program online through DeforestACTION. I’m a big supporter of orangutan outreach and had noticed a post about this program and decided that it was definitely something I wanted to do.

“Of all the animals I have worked with, orangutans are the animals that have made the biggest impact on my views and what I really want to focus on in the conservation initiative.”

Putting in many hours a week at Zoo Miami as a wildlife show trainer and curatorial intern, Cotto has been involved in zoo-keeping work in one way or another for the past decade. Having worked closely with orangutans, he is excited about this opportunity to help them on their ‘home turf.”

“We’d be establishing this program,” Cotto explained. “They’re selecting 10 youth leaders around the world to do this and have the full focus conservation initiative where we’re involving the Dayak people, the indigenous tribe of people in Borneo, and having them know that they can do something other than work in the palm oil industry or log or poaching primates. We’d be rehabilitating the people just as we’d be rehabilitating the orangutans.”

Cotto explained that palm oil is a big part of the problem because natural areas needed by the orangutans are being bulldozed to make room for profitable palm plantations.

“Palm oil is found in more than 50 percent of items in grocery stores, and 90 percent of it comes from Indonesia,” Cotto said. “There are more than 17,000 islands in the Indonesian Archipelago — two of them have orangutans, the only place in the world.”

DeforestACTION is a global collaborative project involving young people between ages 18 and 35 to halt the destruction of important rainforests, create a permanent home for orangutans, and “save the planet.” Their website estimates that in Indonesia alone, a forest the size of 300 football fields is being cut down every hour to make way for palm oil plantations.

One of the project’s goals is to produce a 3-D film and a television series to help spread the word and encourage more people to make a difference. Cotto admires those who have done so in the past.

“What Dian Fossey did was remarkable,” Cotto said. “She established something not only research wise, she made these gorillas accustomed to people so that people can go into the rain forests of Rwanda and Uganda and see them first hand. That makes a big impact. Orangutans are in zoos and people can really have that one-to-one connection by seeing them first hand. But if people can go to Indonesia and see them there, it would be a totally different feeling.”

Cotto also praises Wildlife SOS in India, whose co-founder, Kartick Satyanarayan, has visited Zoo Miami to discuss the group’s successes in improving conditions for sloth bears there.

“I think that we can definitely make a change,” Cotto said. “I want to see these things come to the forefront, and what better way of teaching than having a movie and a TV show along with this project? Not only will we be establishing this project, we’ll be sharing it with the rest of the world.

“But even if I don’t go, I know that I have shared my passion with as many people as I can and I will continue to do so. I would hate for my grandchildren to find someday that there are no orangutans in Indonesia.”

Voting ends Apr. 10. To view Willy Cotto’s video submission and have a chance to vote to help him achieve his dream, go online to <http://gg.tigweb.org/tig/deforestaction/52299/>.

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