What Is Orangutan Watch?
Docent Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association
Los Angeles, CA
We docents all know how smart and clever orangutans are. With their relatively large brains and agile hands with short opposable thumbs they are able to figure out many ways to outsmart their human cousins. Primatologists argue whether chimpanzees or orangutans are smarter. All I know is our orangutans are smarter than I am.
Orangutan Watch is an activity for our docents to watch our eight orangutans to be sure they don’t outsmart us. We serve two-hour shifts watching them because over the past many years two of our group escaped although they didn’t go very far – details coming. Why would they? They live the good life here and are loved by their public,
keepers and each other. Like all pets and zoo animals they are thoroughly spoiled and enjoy every minute of it.
This is a terrific program for newer docents who are a little nervous about talking to the public, as well as experienced docents. I have found our public loves stories about our animals. We docents are full of scientific information and love to share it, but don’t forget stories about the orangutans. The public really enjoys hearing these stories.
Here are some of our stories with our animals mentioned by age with the oldest first:
The matriarch of our family is Eloise, born in 1968 with the placenta wrapped around her neck. She now has cerebral palsy and arthritis (and at over 40 who doesn’t) and often rolls around the exhibit instead of traveling on four limbs. She can really move fast and climb and is very fit. She has her own podiatrist and does physical
therapy exercises almost every day with her keepers.
She is a very sexy lady and is the favorite partner of Bruno one of our big males. He absolutely loves her. As you all know orangutans are known for their creative sex practices and as an old and experienced lady I have learned a lot from Eloise and Bruno. She is the mother of Rosie and is the great aunt of our two girls, Berani and Elka. Bruno is our big boy at about 400 lbs and 43 years old. Here is a scarf showing his arm span. He is a hybrid, born at another zoo where he had a vasectomy when it became known there were more than one species of orangutan. He looks like a classic, very handsome Bornean orangutan. All the girls love him and he loves them all, with Eloise his favorite at least when he is thinking about sex. He also has a large number of human primate admirers who visit him frequently.
One day he got out of his exhibit. He had been working on the mesh for a long time, no one knows how long, to make a hole in it. The mesh was “orangutan proof” but he outsmarted the manufacturers and the rest of us. He didn’t go far. A keeper spotted him, called him to come over which he did since all our orangutans are trained
to follow keepers’ instructions. He placed his shoulder up to the mesh, was anesthetized and carried into his night quarters. When he woke up he got lots of treats and thought that was pretty neat. Since then, he has been watched by docents. He checks on us like this (demonstrate) to make sure we are watching him. He has not tried to get out again.
Our next big male is Minyak who came to us from the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta, GA. He is 40 and one half years old.We do not know whether he was a research animal but he was very sick at the time he came to LA with chronic pneumonia and an infection of his throat sack. He is very genetically valuable. His parents were wild caught. He had major surgery in Los Angeles by a big team of human surgeons. He has twice daily nebulizer treatments and is now healthy and has passed on his important genes to his two offspring, Berani and Elka whose stories are upcoming.
Rosie is next, the aunt of Berani and Elka, born in 1981. She has had a partial hysterectomy for fibroids so cannot reproduce. She is very close to her niece Berani and they sometimes paint canvases together for zoo fund raising activities. When she feels like it she will also make necklaces. She is given baskets of strings and beads and
makes her own decisions about what to use for each necklace. You can see here the spacing of the beads is very carefully done by Rosie.
She is the half sister of Kalim our wonderful mother of Berani and Elka and of father Minyak. She is quite a character who sometimes spits water and other liquids at the public. She has done this to me and I hope it doesn’t mean she doesn’t like me because I love and admire her. She has been known to make a tool to capture something a visitor has dropped to bring it into her exhibit. Then when the keeper comes to bargain with her to trade what she has for a treat, she will break her treasure into pieces to get more than one treat – and, it works!
Her keepers worried that she wouldn’t know how to care for Berani before her birth so set her up with a rocking chair, baby bottle and plush orangutan in her night quarters and would demonstrate how to use the bottle to feed the baby. These were not needed. Kalim has been a perfect mother from the minute Berani was born. Now her
year old girl, Elka is with her almost all the time. Please check Elka’s hairdo.
Our next female, Intan, age 26 was born in New Zealand and came to us from Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. She was sent to us by the SSP for breeding so we may have another Minyak offspring before too long.
Berani is 7 years old and is a live wire. She is all over the place and is close to all the orangutans in our group. She is the second to get out of the exhibit through a hole, similar to that which Bruno made. It has since been repaired. She climbed a eucalyptus tree, but came down and went inside when called. She frequently grabs long sticks to
use as tools. We watch her to make certain she doesn’t use them to break the mesh. Here she is enjoying durian fruit in her night quarters. When our wonderful docent Raffaella Committante, whom some of you have met and I hope the rest of you will as well, went to Borneo for the first time we had a party and served durian. It smells like rotten sewage but if you can get over the smell it tastes like banana yogurt and is a favorite food of orangutans in the wild. The leftovers from this party, most of the durian, went to the zoo for our animals who loved it. In Borneo anyone who brings durian into a public place is arrested because it smells so bad.
Berani is very close to Intan and her aunt Rosie. The door between Rosie and Kalim’s night quarters is left open at night so Berani can sleep with one or the other, or both, of them.
Elka at one year is named for Betty White’s character in her Wild in Cleveland TV series. Elka was named by the TV crew in honor of Ms. White, who is a close friend of our zoo, its animals, and our orangutans in particular. Some of you have met her and if not, don’t miss her book about our zoo. You can find it in the gift shop.
As an orangutan watcher you also have opportunities to talk about the serious endangered status of orangutans in the wild. This is a good time to talk about the problems of cutting down Borneo’s tropical rain forest orangutan homes for palm oil plantations. If you haven’t picked up one of these little folders to take to the store to help you avoid products containing palm oil, please do so. Palm oil is hard to avoid because it is in most everything we eat or use for cosmetics. Remember, palm oil is devastating for orangutan habitats and is also very bad for YOUR heart.
Our orangutans and other apes including gibbons have 12 keepers who care for them and love them very much. We are very lucky they are working so hard to take care of all our friends and relatives.
I could go on and on with stories but now I would like to respond to your questions. Thank you for hearing about our orangutans and coming to our wonderful Zoo.