The Intimate Ape

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The perfection with orangutans

There are moments of perfection in a zoo that defy reality.

Sam at the Singapore Zoo

Sam, the curator of animals at the Singapore zoo. Photo by Shawn Thompson

All week I have been at the zoo in Singapore exploring the lives of the orangutans here.

I spent time with individual orangutans, feeding bits of small fruit into their soft, gentle mouths, sitting beside them and being ignored, letting Ahseng, the two-year-old son of Miri, touch me gingerly.

Miri tolerated my presence. She is not a moody and temperamental orangutan like the other mother, Anita. "She doesn't mind who you are," I was told. She saw that I was the friend of the keepers she knew and trusted. The other orangutans don't like Miri because her congenial temperament means that she spends more time with human beings and gets more rewards, like the mulberry leaves she loves.

I talked with keepers about the wonders of orangutans. Yesterday I learned how one female orangutan devised an ingenious escape from the enclosure by teaching herself to float across the moat - since orangutans don't swim - and then grabbed plants to hoist herself out. She was cautious enough to make sure she wasn't observed and the curator had to discover the ruse by hiding in the bushes.

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Some of the orangutans also defeated the funnel put on trees to stop them escaping. Three orangutans arranged themselves on piggyback to get past the funnel and then the top one pulled the others up. They never did it when they knew the keepers were watching.

The male orangutan Friday found a way to break pieces of concrete, grind them into a powder and then spread the powder over his body to transform himself into the first white orangutan. "It is amazing how they can use their brains," I was told by the curator of animals Alagappasamy (Sam) Chellaiyah.

I learned that one time when the cell phone was ringing in the shirt pocket of the curator an orangutan pulled the phone out and put it to his ear so that he could hear what he saw Chellaiyah listening to all the time. Chellaiyah believes that communication will improve between orangutans and us. He says he hears about a dozen different sounds from them, which may also have individual variations, depending on what kind of inflection an orangutan wants to give the sound.

I talked to a scientist doing research about the uses of doubt and scepticism in science, in stark contrast to the discussions with the curator Chellaiyah about spirituality and morality.

After hours at the zoo, it took almost two hours for me to return by bus and MRT to my inexpensive hotel in the red light district of Singapore, where the cheapness of human life struggles for some kind of dignity in bordellos with small altars to the gods and signs warning about the dangers of drugs. The area felt like a tawdry form of captivity where time is cruel and life meaningless.

One morning on the way to the zoo I saw the sun trying to burn through the veil of the early morning haze of heat and a yellow cab flashed by with a big advertisement of the zoo on the side - a photo of an orangutan with the message that they share 97 per cent of our DNA. Around me I felt the futility of existence of people who would know nothing better that life in the streets. People in Singapore have to go to the zoo to see what a frog looks like.

I knew I was leaving for Jakarta today and I could feel the sadness of departure rising in me because I was coming to like the zoo and the people here. I was missing my girlfriend in Seattle too.

Then listening to Chellaiyah yesterday it struck me that he has created a small utopia inside this zoo, a temporary perfection with orangutans that stands against the chaos and imperfections of the world outside the zoo.

Of course, that is not the conventional framework for a discussion about zoos and holding animals in captivity, which many of the zoo keepers I have talked to say they regret.

Maybe it was the sweltering tropical heat, but when I listened to Chellaiyah I started to hear how he was a different person inside the zoo and wondered what made the difference. He believes he has become a different man since the zoo opened in 1971 and he started working with orangutans.

He said that he has become a calmer, more patient person and in some ways feels better inside the zoo than outside. He has achieved a kind of perfection with orangutans here that he can't even achieve with his family.

As zoos go, Chellaiyah, with the help of his staff and the administration of the zoo, believes he has created humane conditions for the orangutans, who were either orphans confiscated as pets or born in the zoo.

The orangutans can range freely outside their enclosure through a network of large trees developed for them. Orangutans are an arboreal ape and their minds and emotions may only develop fully when they can live in trees. You can see them enjoy the pleasures of climbing and swinging and I watched some just enjoy the rhythm of swinging. There is enough space here in the trees for them to get distance from people and other orangutans when they need it. "They know this is a safe haven," Chellaiyah says.

The orangutans should be totally free, of course, but it is not a perfect world. The rainforest of orangutans is being destroyed in Borneo and Sumatra; orangutans are being driven to the brink of extinction and brutalized by human beings.

But in an imperfect world that may be beyond our ability to fix it, this zoo feels like a place to come to experience for a moment what perfection might be like. It may be why people enjoy a place like this.

"I know what I am creating in a sanctuary," Chellaiyah told me. He sees contentment in the orangutans and happiness in the people who can see them swing freely in the trees.

He says he respects the orangutans and was outraged one time when a man got too close to a female orangutan and grabbed her breasts to make what seemed like a joke to him. Human beings can be such beasts. He made the fellow apologize abjectly.

"I used to be a very angry man," he told me. The orangutans made him mellower, he said. After he has been away from the zoo for a week, he says his family notices that he is more tense and frustrated, "like I lost something," he explains.

He says he talks to the orangutans in a direct and honest expression of his feelings, encouraging them, communing with them, and then laughs, saying, "Maybe it's too long I have been at the zoo."

Here, he says, "I feel happy. I feel strong. I don't feel old." And laughs again. He has turned fifty-nine.

His wife tells him that leaving the zoo at retirement will "handicap" him.

At home they even notice that he walks with a limp, which disappears on the grounds of the zoo and he has less of an appetite for food when he leaves the zoo.

What has been achieved inside the zoo is what is real, he says, not the cruelty of life outside.

Maybe yes, maybe no. Who knows. In the swelter of the tropical heat in a city like Singapore, you take what small moments of grace you can get.

Shawn Thompson is an assistant professor at Thompson Rivers University and author of The Intimate Ape.

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