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Markisa & Kemala (photo by Jackie Scherer)

Featured Article

The Orangutans of Como Zoo

"THHHPPPPPBBBT" – Amanda the Orangutan

Como Park Zoo and Conservatory is a treasure. It is socketed conveniently in between the two cities, free to attend (although poking a donation into the plexiglass box at the entryway feels good), and home to a vast menagerie. I love to watch the lions loll in uffish thought. The emperor tamarins, which have such proud mustaches, look like they could tell you lengthy stories about their glory years in Her Majesty's Naval Service. Even the sea urchin in the aquarium enchants as it rhythmically scrapes its odd number of teeth against the glass in perpetual search of whatever it is that sea urchins like to eat.

But none of the zoo's residents are remotely so charismatic as the orangutans. The ginger apes appear powerful enough to rip a truck tire to shreds with their fingertips, and indeed they are, yet their gentle expressions suggest they'd never misapply such force. No brutishness flickers behind an orangutan's eyes. It is a joy to watch them corral their wandering babies, lackadaisically wrap their lips around fresh fruit, and climb up telephone poles with the grace of Flying Wallendas.

It may be inaccurate to call the people who care for orangutans their "keepers." People like Megan Elder are more akin to ambassadors to apedom, who empathize and negotiate with their hairy wards so as to make certain everything is to their liking.

"I always knew from day one that I wanted to work with animals," said Megan, who in addition to caring for Como's orangutans serves as the chair and international studbook keeper to the Orangutan Species Survival Plan, an organization which manages the orangutan population throughout our continent. "Like all little girls I loved whales and dolphins. I planned to leave my childhood home in South Minneapolis to study marine biology on the coast, but instead stayed and completed my degree in biology with a psychology minor. I gravitated more toward primates and large cats while working at a zoo in South Dakota, and I was very lucky to begin working with the orangutans as soon as I joined Como.

"The orangutans had me at 'insert raspberry sound.' I bonded to them immediately. They're a little more careful about who they make friends with, though. An orangutan meeting you for the first time will walk up, look you right in the eyes, read you, and then take however much time they like to decide if you're their kind of people.

"My favorite orangutan in our group is Amanda (please don't tell the other orangutans I said so). Amanda is very sweet to new keepers. She's almost flirty, batting her eyes and pursing her lips at them. And she's so adorable that you just can't resist her. But you have to be cautious with Amanda – cross the line with her and she'll spit a mouthful of water at you. She jets it out through the gap in her front teeth and she is deadly accurate. Your only recourse at that point is to pretend you don't mind it one bit. You can see the resignation spread across her face when she thinks she has run out of ways to annoy you.

"'Fierce' doesn't do justice to an orangutan's intelligence. They don't just know how to trade. They understand value and are actually able to barter. For example, one time an old length of chain and its lock broke off a hammock in the orangutans' enclosure. Amanda knew this was something she shouldn't have, so she climbed up real high and dangled it for everyone to see. Now, Amanda is a master at reading people. She could tell this chain was worth a lot to us. So rather than return the whole thing for a single reward, she handed it back to us piece by piece in exchange for her favorite fruits. Orangutans are master manipulators.

"There's no other way to get something back from an orangutan. Even a 100-pound female is about eight times stronger than a human, so if they get ahold of something they're not supposed to, it's ultimately up to them how long they're going to keep it. I consider myself lucky that Amanda has never decided to help herself to my shirt, but I'm glad we have T-shirts in the gift shop in the event that ever does happen.

"People are surprised by how quiet orangutans are. They're not at all like chimps, which scream. Many orangutans will blow a raspberry to get your attention. Amanda prefers to make a little kissy noise, and Kemala, another of our orangutans, makes a sound like Donald Duck. 

"Jambu is an exception. About once a day he'll treat the zoo to what is known as the 'long call.' It's almost like a looping roar and can be heard up to a mile away, and it's Jambu's way of informing everyone in the area that he's a big, handsome male orangutan. 'Ladies, take note; other males – go away.' Jambu is very calm otherwise, so it's almost like Dr. Jekyll becoming Mr. Hyde whenever he long calls.

"Orangutans are amazingly committed mothers. They raise their babies for eight to ten years, teaching them how to find food, how to make nests, and which predators to look out for. Orangutan mothers essentially have a whole culture to pass on.

"We have an orangutan here named Markisa. We made sure she spent plenty of time around experienced mothers so she could see firsthand how to care for her own baby one day. Sadly, her very first was stillborn. She cleaned it, held it, kept it in her nest for a while. We didn't want to interrupt her as she processed her heartbreak. Finally, she placed the infant on a bench and left to rejoin the group.

"We were encouraged by how lovingly Markisa behaved and determined to help her become a mother. Her second pregnancy was a difficult one. We ultimately had to bring her to UofM where OB-GYNs performed an emergency C-section. As the orangutans' primary keeper I was concerned – not just over Markisa's health, but also whether she would accept her baby once they were reunited.

"We handraised baby Jaya while Markisa recovered, each of us wearing a fluffy orange vest that he could cling to for comfort. We brought Markisa her baby for visits and encouraged any interest she showed in him. On Christmas, 11 days after his birth, we placed Jaya in a big pile of bedding and opened the door for Markisa. She went straight to him, picked him up, and began nursing him within a few hours. It was a great relief for all of us to see. And Markisa's third pregnancy, I am happy to say, went smoothly.

"How do I describe my relationship with the orangutans? I am their nurse and their caregiver, but they're more than just animals I look after. Sometimes I see them as coworkers because they do help me sweep up and wash the windows (in their own fashion). I suppose more than anything else I see them as my best friends – and I believe they understand that I belong to them."

  • Amanda (photo by Jackie Scherer)
  • Markisa & Kemala (photo by Susannah Baudhuin)
  • Megan Elder & Amanda (photo by G. Sjostrom)
  • Markisa & Kemala (photo by Jackie Scherer)
  • Jambu & Kemala (photo courtesy of Como Zoo)