Chapter 8 – Going Ape

In July 1990 Scott flew to Taipei to meet with Marcus Phipps of the Orangutan Foundation. They were trying to fund a rehabilitation center for orangutans that were rescued from the pet trade. Since the passing of the Primate Protection Act, the government had seized several orangutans from private owners. They needed a safe place to keep them until they could be examined and possibly returned to the wild.

Some would never go back, as they were too old and it was unlikely that they could learn the skills they needed to survive in the jungle. Some had contracted diseases from humans that made them a danger to other primates in the wild. They also had to do DNA profiles to discover which subspecies of orangutan they were – from Borneo or from Sumatra, before they could be released.
A committee was formed which included Scott, Marcus and several other veterinarians and Orangutan Foundation volunteers. They tried to find corporate sponsors who would donate money for a facility. It looked like this process would take several years. In the mean time, they needed a place to keep the rescued apes.

When Scott was in Taiwan there were ten orangutans that needed a facility. The orangutan Scott got to know best was a male named Romeo. Romeo was a five-year old orangutan who came to Taiwan with the Brazilian Traveling Circus. The circus was impounded in Taipei and the owner was jailed, so suddenly Romeo had no place to go. Marcus Phipps volunteered to take care of Romeo until they could find a proper facility for him.

He took Romeo home to his apartment on the 8th floor of a high rise in down town Taipei. Going up in the elevator, holding Romeo’s hand, Marcus worried that he really didn’t know how to take care of an orangutan. Romeo seemed unconcerned as he followed Marcus down the hall and into the apartment. Marcus didn’t even know what to feed Romeo. Orangutans are vegetarians in the wild, eating leaves and fruit. Marcus wondered what he had in the apartment that he could possibly offer the ape to eat.

As they entered the apartment Romeo looked curiously around. Suddenly he took off toward the kitchen. Marcus followed him and watched in amazement as Romeo opened the refrigerator, took out a can of coke, popped the top and drank it down. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about what to feed him.
By the time Scott came to visit Romeo, Marcus had other concerns. The orangutan had become fixated with eating soap! He knew this could not possibly be good for the ape, but Scott had seen it in orangutans before. The only thing Scott could come with was that some substance in commercial soap was similar to the waxy leaves that the apes ate in the wild. Eating soap was like a taste of home to them.

The problem with keeping an orangutan in a high rise apartment was that they are very smart and very strong and the apartment will not hold them for long. Marcus had to keep Romeo in a large cage when he was gone to keep him out of trouble. Very quickly Romeo discovered that he could move the cage around the apartment by rocking it back and forth. Often Marcus would return home to find the cage clear across the room and his houseplants picked clean of leaves.

One day while Romeo was working his way around the apartment rocking the cage, he misjudged how hard he was rocking and tipped the cage over. It fell into one of the apartment’s plate glass windows and the huge window was knocked out of its molding. The huge sheet of plate glass fell eight floors to the street below, narrowly missing a pedestrian below. Having a young orangutan in a high-rise apartment was a bit like having a wild party that never ended.

Even people who raised orangutans from babyhood begin to see serious difficulties when their babies became teenagers. By their teens orangutans can be 200 pounds, and like human teenagers, they become very cranky and hard to handle. This is the age when orangutans are often donated to local zoos by their frightened or injured owners. It is unlikely that many orangutans lived out their lives in the homes where they were sold as babies.

Ideally it is best if rescued baby orangutans are returned to the wild. Their dwindling numbers make reintroduction seem an obvious goal. The problem is that, like human children, orangutans need twelve to thirteen years of parental care before they can survive on their own. While they are being raised, they have to be taught to forage for food in the wild and to socialize with other orangutans. At the same time their human caretakers have to be careful not to handle the orangutans too much to avoid human-orangutan bonding which would certainly be a disadvantage when it was time to release them. Rehabilitation centers in Borneo and Sumatra have been set up to house and re-assimilate the rescued apes until they are old enough to be released. Only time will tell if these human-raised orangutans can make a smooth transition back to the jungle when their time comes.

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About Sheri Amsel

Sheri Amsel has degrees in Botany and Zoology from the University of Montana 1980, a Master's Degree in Anatomy, Physiology and Biomedical Illustration from Colorado State University 1987. Ms. Amsel interned at the Smithsonian Institute in 1983 in Scientific Illustration, taught anatomy and biology at three colleges from 1990 - 1997. In addition, Ms. Amsel has published more than 15 nonfiction children's books, two field guides for adults, and illustrated a myriad of books and interpretive displays on nature and science topics. Ms. Amsel has done science programming at more than 300 schools nationally, developed more than 20 educational nature trails in New York State, and coordinates school visits to local nature trails for environmental education programs for the Eddy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and habitat preservation. Ms. Amsel created the Exploring Nature Educational Resource website with the hopes of sharing her science and environmental education knowledge and experience with science educators and students worldwide.