Shawn Thompson

Shawn Thompson

The Intimate Ape

The man who helps orangutans find love

Orangutans have matchmaking issues like us

Posted May 22, 2010

Willie Smits, orangutan matchmaker. Photo by Orangutan Outreach

The last few days I have been travelling through the hot latitudes of Java, Borneo and Sulawesi with the unconventional Dutch orangutan scientist Willie Smits.

I don't pretend to fathom Smits, although I have known him since 2001 and talk to him as much as I can. But I have seen his amazing ability to understand individual orangutans and communicate with them.

Some people have the ability and others don't and no amount of cramming the old cranium with abstract knowledge about orangutans will create this kind of understanding.

There is something fundamentally different about the consciousness of some people that allows them to understand an ape deeply on a level others never can.

I keep asking myself what that difference is.

I also wonder whether we could understand this consciousness and awaken it in ourselves to understand orangutans better, like we come to know a foreign culture in a deeper way.

Today I am at Smits's sanctum on the island of Sulawesi, feeling the cooler air of a mountain rain with the nearby volcano shrouded in the clouds. I have been watching Smits play guitar with his year-and-a-half-old granddaughter Wila, who Smits says has the mind of a botanist like him.

Meanwhile, I try to understand the conversation that Smits and I had yesterday in Borneo at his Samboja Lestari project to create the model of a forest that he hopes will save orangutans from extinction. Samboja Lestari is a sanctuary for Smits and human beings as much as it is for orangutans.

Smits talked about the difficulties he had growing up in Holland in an autistic-like state of disassociation and isolation from the life of others, and then illustrated communication with orangutans through a story about solving the match-making angst of two orangutans at the zoo in Hong Kong a few days before.

I had watched the same rapport between Smits and orangutans at Samboja Lestari. He approached two new orangutans in a cage and within minutes was communicating with them by body language, facial expression and vocalizations.

"I don't have a language connected to these sounds," he told me. "There is no specific meaning to the sounds I create. It is a mood I convey with my eyes. Orangutans look straight into your soul."

I lingered to see what would happen when Smits went to the next cage. The orangutans were totally oblivious of me. There is something different about Smits, something that eludes science, although Smits is no less a scientist for it.

Smits told me about his painful childhood when he could not speak until the age four and then had an epiphany about language and started to read.

When he was eighteen, Smits had another epiphany, involving a young woman and a kiss, and from there he developed connections with the world of other human beings from which he had been distant.

I'm fascinated by the growth of the consciousness of Smits and the way understanding his consciousness might help us all to communicate with orangutans.

I know this sounds like voodoo and faith healing to some, but I have seen it happen and I have also seen the way that people who live with abstractions too much are unable to appreciate this.

An example of this ability to communicate is how Smits solved the romantic problems of two orangutans at the Hong Kong zoo.

The zoo had put the two orangutans together in a cage as a kind of arranged marriage, but nothing was happening and the zoo officials were baffled. Human beings expect the brute biology of sexuality to take over and failed to appreciate that orangutans need to be in the mood too. They can get tangled in misunderstandings and blocked by contrary emotions.

In the Hong Kong zoo, Smits could see that the male, Mendu, and female, Raba, were attracted to each other, but Mendu was behaving like a shy and socially awkward teenager who does not fathom the strange and incomprehensible world of the female.

Smits worked to encourage and clarify the feelings of Mendu through sounds of a kind of intuitive emotional tonal language. It may come from the way language and his relations with others developed in him as a child outside a conventional development pattern.

Smits and Mendu touched each other through the wire mesh and at one point Mendu made the generous and symbolic offer of an orange seed extended on his big orangutan lips. Smits startled the zoo officials by accepted the seed from orangutans lips to his own, like teenagers passing chewing gum from mouth to mouth.

The discussion with Smits loosened Mendu up and that both fascinated and encouraged Raba. Orangutan females don't like to be dominated by a male any more than human females. Romances work best in both worlds when the initial choice comes from the female.

Raba started to tease Mendu, but Mendu misunderstood the teasing as rejection, the same complaint you often hear from women that men don't understand the signals that women think are so clear. Raba was slapping Mendu on the head and spitting water at him. The difference between rejection and teasing is sometimes too subtle for the male mind to grasp.

But with a little more soothing and communication, Smits helped Mendu get into a receptive mood that opened Raba to him.

That led inevitably to foreplay and love making and then a hot moment of sex with both Mendu and Raba clenched in a red furry mass suspended by their strong arms and feet on the wire mesh. The payoff was mutual orgasms.

One can only wonder if lovemaking is better that way, free from the restraints of the earth. Maybe someday we will be able to get an answer to that from orangutans.

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