Gary Shapiro taught the orangutan Princess sign language. He runs the Orang Utan Republik foundation

Gary Shapiro taught the orangutan Princess sign language


THE BEST PLACE IN THE WORLD to watch the game of wits between human beings and orangutans is the Camp Leakey research facility in Central Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo.

Of course, the game can happen any place where orangutans and human beings congregate, but at Camp Leakey it's more conspicuous because orangutans are wandering free again after having spent time being held captive by human beings.

The orangutans have more of an advantage after captivity because of what they have learned about us and what we have failed to learn about them.

I remember watching an orangutan steal a canoe at Camp Leakey. The canoe was sunk in shallow water to prevent the apes from taking it. The orangutan just rocked the canoe from side to side to splash the water out. It seemed like a routine event at Camp Leakey by then. One side makes one move. The other side makes a counter move.

Camp Leakey is inside a national park in Indonesia, so the orangutans have an endless supply of tourists and visiting scientists to use to play the game. We bury wires; they pull them up. We lock doors and post guards; they scheme to get past them. We pretend that our intentions are different from what they seem; they pretend that they don't know that.

We are handicapped in the game because we forget how much orangutans are like us. When we forget that, they seem unpredictable.

I have been chatting about all this with a "third generation" scientist from Cambridge University in Great Britain who is duplicating the same mistakes at Camp Leakey of the first and second human generations.

One day the scientist, Graham L Banes, was having trouble unlocking a cabin door at Camp Leakey that had a makeshift key system to defeat orangutans. The orangutan Princess made a gesture to hand the key to her and she would unlock the door. Banes did. Princess unlocked the door, went inside, locked Banes out and ate the bananas inside uninterrupted. Then she unlocked the door and gave Banes the key back. Banes has seen this happen repeatedly, with orangutans locking humans inside cabins and "giggling" or making "play faces." I have seen orangutans laugh too. They enjoy life. They like a good joke.

Another time, the same orangutan, Princess, surprised Banes by taking him by the hand into the jungle and then giving him her child Putri, so that she could take a maternal break. It was an act of trust that surprised Banes. But Princess had watched Banes in camp until she was sure that he was reliable. Banes only realized later that she had been watching him. It is what any good mother would do. A human being would forget that because of the notions we have about wild animals that can't talk.

However, Princess can still communicate. The scientist Gary Shapiro proved that at Camp Leakey in the late 1970s when he treated the young Princess as his "dear adopted daughter" and taught her sign language. Shapiro says that Princess has more of a trusting side with "some humans" than other female orangutans. But her benevolence has its limits. People have made simplistic assumptions about her, only to be bitten for thwarting her will or duped by her cunning side.

So the game goes on. We try to predict what they will do and they try to predict what we will do. Banes has a story that shows how much similarity there is in the thinking of apes and humans.

What happened was that the orangutans at Camp Leakey realized that Banes was collecting samples of their excrement. They didn't know it was for DNA testing, but they knew it was important to Banes for whatever obscure reason humans might have for collecting their excrement, so they decided to stop defecating. They figured that would frustrate Banes, and it did.

Banes tried to outwit the dominant male Kusasi by following him for three days. Kusasi, a keen strategist himself, finally defecated into the water where Banes couldn't get the sample and watched Banes as he did it, knowing it was having an effect and wanting to see that effect. Banes retaliated by staying rooted under the nest of Kusasi all night to collect the material. It worked, but Kusasi also turned that defeat into a triumph by peeing on Banes from the tree. The natives call that "jungle rain."

Freud would have got a laugh from the details of a power struggle like this, played by rules that both sides understand without words. It is easy for us to understand because orangutans think and feel like we do. We get the joke. They get the joke.

It should be obvious after all the years that what makes orangutans unpredictable for us are the limitations of what we want to accept about them.

That is one lesson we don't want to learn from orangutans, even if it means losing the game.

About the Author

Shawn Thompson

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

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