When I think about orangutans, I often think about Chantek, who was raised by scientists as part of a language research project directed by anthropologist Lyn Miles. Chantek learned how to communicate with humans by using roughly 150 gestural signs based on American Sign Language. He also understood many words of spoken English. With a vocabulary similar to that of a human toddler, Chantek used signs to request favorite foods, rides to restaurants, cage cleaning and more. He received an allowance in exchange for cleaning his enclosure and doing other chores. He understood the concept of money and used his allowance to buy himself treats, such as ice cream and cheeseburgers.
Chantek demonstrated self-awareness as well as theory of mind—the ability to attribute mental states to others. He recognized his reflection as his own and even described himself as an “orangutan person.” When he was moved to a zoo with non-signing orangutans, he referred to them as “orange dogs.” Chantek knew the other apes were orangutans, so his trainers concluded that his “demeaning” description was intended to set himself apart from the other, non-signing orangutans. When Chantek wanted a confidential exchange, he would sign “secret” and make his gestures small in an effort to conceal them. If people were visiting and Chantek wanted a moment alone with Miles, he would sign “I you talk,” while pointing to a location away from the visitors, suggesting he understood that the visitors might want to eavesdrop.
Chantek wasn’t just intelligent and self-aware. He also demonstrated a depth of emotion. He developed close relationships with his caregivers and used signs to express concern about them. For example, if in the course of imaginative play his caregivers pretended that a toy animal was on the attack, Chantek would “protect” the caregivers from the attacking toy. Another time, Miles had a scratch on her hand, and Chantek asked her about it. After Miles explained that she had hurt herself cleaning, Chantek asked to touch and kiss her hand. He also could be quite chivalrous. Once, when Chantek and Miles were outside and it started to rain, he picked up a scrap of fabric, tore it in half, and handed one half to Miles. He then held the other half above his head as if it were an umbrella, looked at Miles, and signed “rain.”
Although Chantek was unique when it came to his ability to communicate with humans, his intelligence was not. Many zookeepers consider orangutans to be the most ingenious of all the great apes. Zoologist Ben Beck once described the difference between ape species by comparing how they would respond if given a screwdriver: A chimpanzee would try to use the tool for everything except its intended purpose. A gorilla would first be afraid of the screwdriver, then try to eat it, and eventually forget about it. An orangutan, however, would note the tool, appear to show no interest in it while humans were present, and then when he had privacy, he would use the screwdriver to pick the locks or dismantle the cage and escape.
Chantek’s sweet-natured temperament is another quality shared by most orangutans. These gentle apes have a well-established reputation for being nice guys. Scientists and zookeepers have observed orangutans helping one another, even to their own detriment, assisting other species, such as injured birds, and even sharing foods with other species by reaching through the bars of their enclosures to offer fruit to chimpanzees across the aisle. Primatologist Leif Cocks describes orangutans as “the Tibetans of the apes—the most peaceful of all on our family tree.” Although orangutans will defend their young to their own death, they do not attack to kill their opponents or rivals the way chimpanzees...and humans do.
Help Protect Orangutans
There are three species of orangutans—Bornean, Sumatran and Tapanuli—all of which live in rainforests on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The name orangutan means “person of the forest”—an apt name for an ape who shares 97 percent of our DNA. As a result of deforestation and poaching, these intelligent, empathetic beings are in danger of disappearing from the planet. The Bornean orangutan is listed as endangered, and both the Sumatran and Tapanuli orangutan are considered critically endangered. In fact, with less than 800 individuals in existence, the Tapanuli orangutan is the most endangered of all great apes.
Established in 1991, the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation is the world’s largest orangutan conservation organization. The BOS protects these amazing apes by preserving and restoring the orangutan’s rainforest habitat, rescuing injured or orphaned orangutans and returning them to the forest, collaborating with indigenous communities, and educating the public. Learn more about how you can support its work here: borneoorangutansurvival.org
BELINDA RECIO, recipient of the Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals, owns True North Gallery (truenorthgallery.net) in Hamilton, Massachusetts, where she exhibits art that connects people with animals and the natural world.