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Shawn Thompson

Shawn Thompson

Feeling the life inside an orangutan

Our similarities with orangutans helps us understand them.

10-day-old orangutan with mother. Photo by Shawn Thompson

I saw a small miracle happen in Taipei today.

For the last 10 days since her second infant was born in the Taipei zoo in Taiwan, the orangutan Nu-nu has refused to let anybody see her feeding her child. The zoo staff don't even know the sex of the infant and so have not named it.

I was talking to a zoo official while an orangutan named Ka-shu was showing us how she figured out by herself how to put a glove on. Ka-shu is a clever orangutan who likes human company. She entertained us with her somersault rolls.

Then Nu-nu, not to be outdone, came close to the mesh and let us see her nursing her infant for about 10 minutes.

That was a priviledged moment. Orangutans are very discriminating about people, more so than human beings, even some working in zoos, realize. This one had frustrated the attempst of zoo officials to photograph her breast-feeding her infant for 10 days. But now she decided to let me see her baby.

Nu-nu's first child died in birth and Nu-nu had wrapped the tiny dead body in a blanket. But the next one survived with Nu-nu's scrupulous care and so today I saw the frail hand with long, tiny skeletal fingers and the thin neck and small head held against the mother's breast. The mother's hand was so big that she could hold most of the infant in it. Then she decided that was enough and turned her back on us for privacy.

I remembered what the orangutan keeper Yang Chiang Lan told me a few hours earlier about the personal moment for him when he understood the natural connection we have with orangutans.

Yang told me that he thought an orangutan was just another wild animal until he held an infant orangutan against his chest and felt the beat of the heart and saw the way the infant looked at him.

Was that just anthropomorphism, the attribution of human traits to a wild creature?

The scientists that I talked to as I wrote my book The Intimate Ape told me that seeing the similarities between orangutans and us helps unlock the secrets of their minds.

Zoo keepers make the same point and so three officials at the Taipei zoo told me today at different times that orangutans "think like us." Tina Chen told me stories how she and an orangutan were getting angry at each other and understood the feelings of each other. "We know them like children," Chen said. "They behave like children." As she said it I was watching Ka-shu mischieviously pull a mop handle through the mesh, which was a magical feat given the size of the mesh and the length of the mop. The same orangutan had refused a few minutes earlier when Chen asked him to show how he could put a glove in his fingers.

Later I talked to Yang Chiang Lan, who has a good rapport with orangutans. Yang is a cheerful, confident, flexible, trusthworthy human being. The mother orangutan would probably have showed her baby to him.

With Yang, I watched the different techniques that orangutans have for meticulously sucking the liquid out of the eggs that Yang was giving them. Some their fingers would touch his through the mesh and their fingertips would play tenderly for a few moments.

Yang said that orangutans are like people and want him to spend some time socializing with them while they are eating.

It is at meal time that Yang has eye contact with the orangutans and eye contact is one way that they can judge his mood and he theirs. That is one of the intriguing similarities between human beings and orangutans, that you can read thoughts and feelings through the look and behaviour of the eyes.

Yang says he can see anger, hate, happiness and calmness in the eyes of orangutans. He says that you can even see a similar eye movement in orangutans to human beings when they are deep in thought and the eyeballs move around.

Later in the day I had a similar conversation with I-Piao (Bill) Chen about reading the mood of an orangutan through its eyes like we would human being. He says he can see doubt, curiosity, wonderment.

Chen remembers the expression he saw in a male orangutan suffering the family drama of two wives, a senior and junior wife. The peevish senior wife would punch the junior wife when she thought the keepers weren't looking. One day the two females had a fight in the outside orangutan enclosure and the junior wife was afraid to come into the inside enclosure for the night. She knew that the senior wife was waiting inside in a bad mood. The male stood by the door to the outside, looking back and forth between the two. It was time for the keeper to close the door. The male orangutan could only stand holding the door open with a look of deep resignation on his face.

"Orangutans are really intelligent, although many people think they are just animals," Chen said.

My interviews at the Taipei Zoo were made possible by the assistance of Ming-Chieh Chao, the general curator of the animal department. The translation for the interviews from Chinese was done by my partner, Wendy Chang.