Orangutans have been hunted for food for a long time by humans. Their charred bones have been found in at 40,000 archaeological sites at Niah Caves in Malaysian Borneo and are still regarded as semi-human creatures among some Malaysians, Indonesians and Borneo tribes. An English visitor to Borneo in the 18th century wrote: “The natives do really believe that these were formally men....metamorphosed into beasts for their blasphemy. “

Orangutans have 95 to 97 percent of the same genetic material as humans. They are highly susceptible to human diseases, such as hepatitis B and tuberculosis, which is one of the main reasons, tourists should resist handling them. Many elderly gorillas and orangutans suffer from cardiovascular disease.

Scientist and conservationist Birute Mary Galdikas, founder of Orangutan Foundation International, told AP orangutans are among the most intelligent animals. Orangutans in the wild, where Galdikas has studied the apes for more than four decades, routinely use tools to scratch themselves, swat insects and create simple shelters. In captivity, Galdikas said orangutans have demonstrated remarkable creative-thinking skills, specifically in their ability to escape enclosures.

Orangutan Intelligence and Mental Life

Orangutans in laboratory situations have learned sign language about as fast and effectively as their gorilla and chimpanzee counterparts. They were able to identify objects, answer questions and explain what they wanted to eat. When orangutans in the wild encounter humans for the first time they tend to drop branches on them, smack their lips loudly and make other vocalizations.

Orangutans show cognitive complexity and flexibility rivaling that of chimps and maintains cultural traditions in the wild. "Azy has a rich mental life," Rob Shumaker told National Geographic of his study subject and friend of 25 years. "Orangutans are on equal cognitive footing with African apes, or even surpass them on some tasks."

Jennifer Holland wrote in National Geographic: “Not only does Azy communicate his thoughts with abstract keyboard symbols, he also demonstrates a "theory of mind" (understanding another individual's perspective) and makes logical, thoughtful choices that show a mental flexibility some chimpanzees lack. In the wild, orangutans keep innovative cultural traditions: Some groups construct foraging tools for extracting insects from tree holes; others use leaves as rain hats or napkins, wad them up as pillows, or line their hands with them when climbing a spiky tree. And in rare instances orangutans will twist leaves into bundles and cradle them like dolls. [Source: National Geographic , March 2008]

Orangutans and Human-Learned Behavior

Orangutans have picked up quite a few habits from their human interlopers. They have learned to open locks, row boats and even cook pancakes One particularly well-mannered animal even learned to open packages by making nice neat tears in the corners (most orangutans apes aren't so adept; they open packages by ripping them to shreds). Some have even improved on human technology. One female used a digging stick to pull pieces of burning charcoal from a fire. When the burning wood cooled she munched away on it as if it were popcorn.

One ate rice with a fork and spoon, blew out candles, played with kittens and kissed them on the lips. Another mixed pancakes with more sugar than most recipes call for. Others still washed clothes, rung them out and waited until they were dry before putting them on. They only worrisome habit of the latter was that she dunked her socks in coffee before she put them on.

Orangutans Troublemakers

Orangutan make lousy house mates. Galdikas and Brindamour complained that the orangutans that stayed with them ate, drank and ripped open anything the can get their hands on; opened childproof drug containers; and squeezed out all the contents of glue bottles and toothpaste tubes. Not only did the orangutans sleep on their bed they also tore open the mattresses and pillows to get at the edible seeds on the inside. Closing the windows and doors wasn't enough to keep them out. The orange apes simply tore down the walls and knocked holes in the roof to get in.

The problems didn't stop there. They ate candles, drank shampoo and sucked on batteries like lifesavers. Usually not satisfied with drinking milk they also like to gargle with it and spit it out all over each other. One had a fancy for flashlight bulbs and another like to suck all the ink out of fountain pens.

Orangutans also like to play with dogs, cats and small children. They enjoy kissing and scratching their playmates but what seems to give the orangutans the greatest pleasure is placing their friends on their head. In zoos, stressed out orangutans respond well to aroma therapy and are particularly relaxed by rose oil.

Orangutans have been killed for raiding crops. Other have their fingers chopped for stealing eggs. Humans who have been attacked or injured by orangutans usually provoked the animals in some way.

Study Finds Orangutans Plan Trips and Map Out Routes

Seth Borenstein of Associated Press wrote: “It's the ape equivalent of Google Maps and Facebook. The night before a big trip, Arno the orangutan plots his journey and lets others know where he is going with a long, whooping call. What he and his orangutan buddies do in the forests of Sumatra tells scientists that advance trip planning and social networking aren't just human traits. [Source: Seth Borenstein, Associated Press, September 11, 2013 ]

“A new study of 15 wild male orangutans finds that they routinely plot out their next day treks and share their plans in long calls, so females can come by or track them, and competitive males can steer clear. The researchers closely followed the males as they traveled on 320 days during the 1990s. The results were published Wednesday in the journal PLoS One.

“Typically, an orangutan would turn and face in the direction of his route and let out a whoop, sometimes for as long as four minutes. Then he'd go to sleep and 12 hours later set on the heralded path, said study author Carel van Schaik, director of the Anthropological Institute at the University of Zurich. "This guy basically thinks ahead," van Schaik said. "They're continuously updating their Google Maps so to speak. Based on that, they're planning what to do next."

“The apes didn't just call once, but they keep at it, calling more than 1,100 times over the 320 days. "This shows they are very much like us in this respect," van Schaik said. "Our earliest hominid ancestor must have done the same thing." Scientists had seen such planning in zoos and controlled experiments, but this study provides solid evidence of travel planning in the wild, said Frans de Waal of Atlanta's Emory University, who was not part of the study.

“Van Schaik said he and colleagues happened upon the trip calls by accident nearly 20 years ago, first with the dominant male Arno, who they followed more than the other 14 males. They waited to publish the results because he thought few people would believe orangutans could do such planning. But in recent years, the lab and captivity studies have all shown such planning. Based on previous studies and monitoring, van Schaik figured the male lets the world know his plans so females can come to him or stay close. Some females may want to stay within earshot in case they are harassed by other males and need protection. Others can come to mate.”

Orangutans Use Mime to Communicate

Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian, “Orangutans use mime to help make themselves understood, according to video recordings of the apes in the wild. Footage of rehabilitated orangutans released into a Borneo forest show the apes mimicking actions such as cracking open termite mounds, washing themselves and using a leaf to clean a wounded foot. The study suggests they are capable of more complex communication than previously thought, and resort to mimes to elaborate on messages directed at other apes and their former keepers. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, August 11, 2010]

The study, published in the Biology Letters journal, suggests miming is rare in wild orangutans, but is used when other forms of communication fail. In some recordings, orangutans used gestures to distract or mislead others. One animal indicated to researchers that it wanted a haircut, as a ruse to divert their attention while it stole something, according to the study. Another tried to use a stick to get termites from a nest, but feigned failure in a bid to attract help, the researchers claim.

Psychologist Anne Russon and Kristin Andrews, a philosopher at York University in Toronto, analysed 20 years of video footage of orangutans that had once been in captivity, but were released into the wild in Indonesian Borneo. They found 18 scenes in which orangutans appeared to be acting out simple mimes to convey information to other animals or people. Of these, 14 mimes were addressed to researchers working with the apes, while four were directed at other orangutans.

Andrews said: "Great apes' ability to engage in rudimentary narrative communication suggests to us that, like humans, they are able to make sense of their world by telling stories, and to relay their thoughts about the world to others."Previous studies have described a gorilla acting as though it was rolling a ball of clay between her hands, which was interpreted as meaning "clay". A language-trained orangutan was also observed blowing through its thumb and forefinger to express the word "balloon". The researchers write: "These orangutan and other great ape pantomime cases indicate that pantomime serves multiple purposes and supports important communicative complexities in living great apes. For great apes, like humans, pantomime is a medium, not a message."

Orangutan Short-Circuits Electric Fence in Zoo 'Escape'

In May 2009, The Telegraph reported: “An "ingenious" 137-pound (62-kilogram) orang-utan used a branch to short-circuit an electric fence and escape from an Australian zoo only to change her mind and return to her enclosure. The ape, a 27-year-old female named Karta, jammed a stick into wires connected to the fence and then piled up debris to climb a concrete and glass wall at the Adelaide Zoo. [Source: The Telegraph, May 10, 2009]

Peter Whitehead, the zoo's curator, said: "You're talking about an animal that's highly intelligent. "We've had issues with her before in normal day-to-day operations where she tries to outsmart the keepers. She's an ingenious animal." Mr Whitehead told reporters that Karta sat on top of the fence for about 30 minutes before apparently changing her mind about the escape and climbing back into the enclosure.

"I think when she actually got out and realised where she was ... she's realised she shouldn't be there so then she's actually hung onto the wall and dropped back into the exhibit," he said.

Karta came within a few yards (meters) of visitors, who were the first to notice the animal's escape bid. Whitehead said the animal was not aggressive, but the zoo was cleared as a precaution, and veterinarians stood by with tranquilliser guns in case of trouble. Officials at the zoo in the southern city of Adelaide would conduct a "thorough review" of the escape bid and it was likely some vegetation that could be used in a future try for freedom would be removed from Karta's enclosure.

Orangutan Learns to Take Her Own Medicine

In August 2007, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “An orangutan at Tama Zoological Park has surprised her minders by willingly taking her medicine after ripping open the packet herself — just like a human would. “It’s rather rare for an animal to take medicine on its own,” said Hidetoshi Kurotori, who looks after the orangutan, named Gypsy, at the zoo in Hino, Tokyo. Gypsy, who is thought to be 51 years old, quite elderly for an orangutan, became sick during the rainy season and was given medicine similar to that used for humans. She had taken the medicine before, after a zoo employee tore open the packet and poured the powdered medicine into her mouth. [Source: Yomiuri Online and Associated Press, August 9, 2007 ]

On June 27, Kurotori accidentally dropped the medicine inside Gypsy’s cage. When he collected the packet the next morning, it had been torn open and the contents had disappeared. Kurotori, 55, handed Gypsy another packet and then watched in disbelief as she skillfully ripped it open and tipped the medicine into her mouth. Since then, Gypsy has been quite happy to repeat this feat. The medicine is flavored to suit orangutans’ fondness for sweet foods, but Kurotori is unsure if the orangutan knows the powder is a medicine. “Perhaps she just prefers to take it when she wants, not when somebody tries to force her to,” he said. Gypsy also wipes her cage with a cloth, and pours water into a plastic bottle before drinking it.

Orangutans Use Ipads to Communicate

In May 2012, David Fischer of Associated Press wrote: “The 8-year-old twins love their iPad. They draw, play games and expand their vocabulary. Their family's teenagers also like the hand-held computer tablets, too, but the clan's elders show no interest. The orangutans at Miami's Jungle Island apparently are just like people when it comes to technology. The park is one of several zoos experimenting with computers and apes, letting its six orangutans use an iPad to communicate and as part of a mental stimulus program. Linda Jacobs, who oversees the program, hopes the devices will eventually help bridge the gap between humans and the endangered apes. [Source: David Fischer, Associated Press. May 9, 2012]

"Our young ones pick up on it. They understand it. It's like, 'Oh I get this,'" Jacobs said. "Our two older ones, they just are not interested. I think they just figure, 'I've gotten along just fine in this world without this communication-skill here and the iPad, and I don't need a computer.'" Jacobs said she began letting the orangutans use iPads last summer, based on the suggestion of someone who had used the devices with dolphins. The software was originally designed for humans with autism and the screen displays pictures of various objects. A trainer then names one of the objects, and the ape presses the corresponding button.

The devices have been a great addition to the enrichment programs Jungle Island already does with the orangutans, Jacobs said. Keepers have long used sign language to communicate with them. Using their hands, the orangutans can respond to simple questions, identify objects and express their wants or needs. The apes can also identify body parts, helping the trainers care for them and even give them shots. "We're able to really monitor their health on a daily basis," Jacobs said of the need for communication with the orangutans. "We can do daily checks. If somebody's not feeling well, we know it immediately."

While Jacobs and other trainers have developed strong relationships with the orangutans, the iPad and other touchscreen computers offer an opportunity for them to communicate with people not trained in their sign language. "It would just be such a wonderful bridge to have," Jacobs said. "So that other people could really appreciate them."

Orangutans are extremely intelligent but limited by their physical inability to talk, she said. "They are sort of trapped in those bodies," Jacobs said. "They have the intelligence that they need to communicate, but they don't have the right equipment, because they don't have voice boxes or vocal cords. So this gives them a way to let us know what they know, what they are capable of, what they would like to have."

Apps for Apes and Improving Ipad Screens for Orangutans

In May 2012, David Fischer of Associated Press wrote: “Other zoos and nature parks are doing similar work. Richard Zimmerman, executive director of Orangutan Outreach, said he's building an "Apps For Apes" program with old, donated iPads at facilities throughout North America, though Jungle Island isn't part of that group. Orangutan Outreach started working with the Milwaukee County Zoo and then expanded to zoos in Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Toronto, Houston and elsewhere. They're hoping to use a video-conferencing program to reconnect orangutans with friends and family members who have been transferred to other zoos, he said. [Source: David Fischer, Associated Press. May 9, 2012]

"We're putting together what we're calling primate playdates or red ape rendezvous, which is to say connecting the orangutans in different facilities," Zimmerman said. "We're looking at a larger picture." When it comes to orangutans, the iPad itself has limitations. First, the relatively small screen causes orangutans to hit the wrong buttons sometimes. Also, the touchscreen won't register if they try to use their fingernails. Most importantly, the devices are just too fragile to actually hand over to the apes — the trainers must hold them.

"If I gave them the iPad, I could just basically hand them $600 and say, 'Go have fun,'" Jacobs said. "So until we come up with a better screen or a better case, I'm going to hold onto the iPad." If Jacobs gets her way, a more secure interface might not be far off. The long-term plan is to set up a larger, orangutan-proof screen in the holding area, along with another screen outside for guests. They would ask the orangutans questions and the apes could respond. "It's really just a matter of getting the technology and equipment here," Jacobs said. "There's not a doubt in my mind that they could do it and would be marvelous at it, and I think the public would absolutely love it."

It's important to note that training the orangutans isn't done to entertain Jungle Island workers or guests. Because the animals are so intelligent, Jacobs said their minds must be kept active to prevent them from getting bored or depressed. The challenge is making the enrichment activities enjoyable. "They need a lot of stimulation," Jacobs said. "Training isn't mandatory, but they love it."

"Anything that Jungle Island can do to help their orangutans while away the day is to be commended," Galdikas said. "IPads seem to work for humans. It's not surprising that orangutans, who share 97 percent of their genetic material with humans, like them, too."

Celebrities and Orangutans as Pets

Indra Harsaputra wrote in the Jakarta Post, “Spanish soccer team captain and Barcelona team halfback Carles Puyol is currently campaigning for the rescue of orangutans, whose population is endangered. Tarzan — as Puyol is dubbed — along with the International Animal Rescue (IAR) and the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) is distributing posters with the words “I Care — Do You?” Actress Julia Roberts undertook a similar campaign in 1998, when she starred in a short film titled In the Wild — Orangutans with Julia Roberts. Julia visited Tanjung Puting National Park. The actions of Julia and Puyol to show their concern has prompted tourists from various countries to go to Tanjung Puting National Park.[Source: Indra Harsaputra, The Jakarta Post, November 17, 2012]

Local people in Indonesia, particularly childless couples, adopt young orangutans as members of the family. In Kalimantan, their adopted parents dress them in human clothes, give them pillows for their beds and encourage them to join the family for meals. Sometime they are trained to be servants: performing simple tasks such as opening doors and fetching food. Sometimes they are breast fed by human mothers and taught to respond to Chinese commands. Other times they become cross-eyed from watching too many soccer games and Indian movies on television.

Orangutans are also kept as pets by rich people. In Indonesia they have traditionally been kept by police and military men. Young orangutans are more sought after than adults for pets, selling for up to $25,000 a piece. When they become older and more unruly their owners often get rid of them, sometime selling them to zoos. Many are abandoned or sent back to Sumatra or Borneo for rehabilitation.

Pet orangutans became popular in Taiwan after one appeared on a popular TV show in the 1980s. An estimated 2,000 orangutans were smuggled from Indonesia to Taiwan, where they for about $4,000 a piece. Orangutans were visible everywhere, even in Snake Alley in Taipei. Some were treated quite poorly. In Taipei, one orangutan had its face painted blue and was tied up in a shop. Orangutans were bought and sold openly until the trade was outlawed in 1989. To obtain the 2,000 orangutans that made it alive to Taiwan, an estimated 4,000 died after capture and 6,000 mothers were killed to obtain the babies. Orangutan are reportedly still available in Taiwan if you have the money.

On how orangutan end up as pets, Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times: As the forest is cut down, loggers who encounter orangutans commonly shoot the adult females and take their babies to sell as pets. "We estimate that five die for every one that reaches the market," said Peter Pratje, a conservationist whose work is sponsored by the Frankfurt Zoological Society. [Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2005]

“Despite a law against trading in orangutans, about 1,000 babies are sold as pets in Indonesia each year. The animals, now mainly from Borneo, can easily be purchased in Jakarta, the nation's capital. Bought by wealthy Indonesians as a status symbol, they are adorable as babies but difficult to handle as they grow. Once the novelty wears off, many of the animals spend their lives in cages, alone and neglected.

“Prodded by environmental activists, police have seized hundreds of captive orangutans in recent years and turned them over to rehabilitation centers for release in the wild. But the trade continues. At the open-air Jakarta pet market, a dealer named Yommy recently offered to sell a 4-month-old Borneo orangutan for $750. "I guarantee you will get the best quality," Yommy said, promising delivery within a week. "We already sorted the orangutans and chose only the best ones."

Malaysian Orangutan Hospital Where Orangutans Wear Diapers

From Bukit Merah, Malaysia, AFP reported: “A Malaysian orangutan sanctuary where baby apes wear nappies, sleep in cots and are cared for by nurses dressed in masks and starched uniforms has drawn the wrath of environmentalists. At Orangutan Island in Malaysia's north, tourists snap photos as they file past large windows looking onto a facility billed as the world's only rehabilitation and preservation facility for the endangered primates. Behind the glass, adorable baby orangutans like two-month-old Tuah lie swaddled in nursery sheets and cling to baby rattles. [Source: M. Jegathesan, AFP, May 30, 2009]

"He is separated from the mother because his hands got entangled in the mother's hair and was unable to breastfeed," says the facility's chief veterinarian D. Sabapathy. Tuah lies calmly in his cot with his eyes wide open and hands across his chest, hooked up to cables monitoring his heart beat and oxygen levels, ignoring the passing parade. But the care lavished on the animals, which are fed every two hours by a staff of seven nurses on duty round the clock, is lost on environmentalists who say this is no way to treat wild animals facing the threat of extinction.

Managers of the 35-acre island, which is part of a resort hotel development, say they aim to return the animals to their natural jungle habitat, but so far none have been released. "It is ridiculous to have orangutans in nappies and hand-raised in a nursery. How are they going to reintroduce the primates back in the wild," said senior wildlife veterinarian Roy Sirimanne.

Sirimanne, who has worked in zoos in Southeast Asia and the Middle East over the past four decades, said baby orangutans need to be with their mothers to learn survival skills. "Keeping the orangutans in captivity on an island is not a conservation programme. It amounts to desecration (of the species) as it is nearly impossible to reintroduce them back to the forest,” he told AFP.

Orangutan Island is situated in the north of peninsular Malaysia, far from the jungles of Borneo where the orangutan's natural habitat is. "We are opposed to the orangutan sanctuary. We are opposed to this theme park resort having wildlife in captivity," said its president Mohamad Idris. "Captive-bred orangutans have no natural resistance against diseases, making them susceptible to diseases. Death is inevitable," he said.

The centre's veterinarian defended the facility, situated in the tourist town of Bukit Merah, which opened in 2000 and now houses 25 orangutans. He admitted the centre had suffered a high mortality rate in its early days, with seven deaths of infant orangutans between 2000 and 2003, but said it had learned a lot since then. "It is the pride of Malaysians and it is aimed at helping ensure our orangutans do not become extinct," said Sabapathy. He said the facility was originally stocked with orangutans obtained from the forestry department in Sarawak state on Borneo, who had been confiscated from individuals there. "Now we can study the primate and collect data. The orangutans will eventually be returned to Sarawak. That is our objective," he said.

Sabapathy said infants were only removed from their mothers if they were underweight, neglected and at risk of dying, and that some mothers raised their own babies, including one born in May. "I will not be disheartened by the criticism," he said. "We are not ill-treating them. People say the species is getting endangered but what are they doing? We are trying to increase the numbers in the wild."

Nearby, 21-year-old nurse Nadiah Mohamad smiled fondly at one-year-old April who was rejected by his mother, and fed him with formula while four-month-old June showed off by jumping around her cot and pulling the bedsheets. "I love them. It is like taking care of a small child," she said. When the baby apes are a year old, they are transferred to an "infant development unit" designed to teach them to live in the wild. In another zone, enclosed with electrified barbed wire, adult orangutans are free to roam and build their nests in the treetops. Most of the visitors, from Malaysia and abroad, are delighted to interact with the animals and are unaware of the criticism. "I don't think it is wrong keeping them here. It is a practical solution to save the orangutans and educate our children," said 26-year-old Vikki Kendrick from Britain.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2014

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