MOSCOW (AP) _ Their pay is peanuts and their jobs are on the endangered list. So three young science workers dramatized the plight of Russian scientists by spending Sunday in a cage at the Moscow Zoo.

``Sitting in a cage is a symbolic gesture. Many of our colleagues have already thrown up their hands in despair,'' said Yevgeny Spiridonov, a lanky 27-year-old meteorologist standing behind the iron bars of an orangutan cage, dressed neatly and wearing a tie.

But Spiridonov and his cage-mates, computer engineer Vladislav Perlin and space technician Viktor Pekin, said their 11-hour ``humanitarian action'' isn't a protest _ it's an affirmation of science meant to encourage other struggling young scientists.

``We want to show that we're alive, and we're working in science even though our institution closed,'' Spiridonov said.

``You have to do what you love, and real science can always support its own. ... Each person in the world is in their own cage, after all.''

Scientists, among the best paid and most pampered Soviet workers, have seen their fortunes nosedive since the 1991 Soviet collapse. Their monthly wages now average less than the national average of about $110, and are often months in arrears.

Many scientific workers say they are forced to look for work abroad, and fewer young people are entering the sciences.

The threesome in the cage worked together at the Ministry of Economics until recently, when their jobs were eliminated. They have found work in schools and private businesses, but miss the collegiality of their old jobs.

A sign outside the cage declared: ``Rational Man. Homo Sapiens. Subspecies: Scientific Workers.''

The scientists were fed four meals of cereal, fruit and vegetables, and sat around a table with bottles of mineral water, bowls, books and notepads. Most of the time, they worked quietly, rarely looking up at the few dozen spectators.

A male orangutan in the next cell sat as close as he could, with his orange arms resting on the bars. Zoo officials said the ape, who considers the men's cell one of his own, spent much of the day sniffing in that direction to find out what was going on.

Zoo spokeswoman Natalya Istratova said the zoo liked the project because it wants to know what it is like being caged. She said she also approves of the message that ``freedom is inside us, people and animals.''

The public, however, seemed to find it much more interesting to watch apes than humans, she noted. Zoo-goers were surprised by the exhibit, and many were confused.

``I think they're trying to say people are part of nature and have no right to play God,'' ventured Denis Ilchuk, a 21-year-old soldier. ``This experiment shows we're the same as our neighbors in the cages.''

``No,'' said his mother, Margarita, who was visiting from Siberia. ``They're trying to raise concern for people, who have a lot of problems now. We all have to protect each other.''