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Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

The Literate Orangutan

Posted on 25. Jun, 2010 by in Alfred Russel Wallace and his assistant Ali, Articles

The Literate Orangutan

Trying to teach a red ape to write

SEPILOK, Sabah, Malaysia

What if we could communicate with other species?

What could an orangutan tell us about her life, about her emotions when her rainforest is chopped down, about the rascally behavior of randy adolescent male orangutans?

* * * * *

I’ve seen orangutans in the wild, an increasingly-rare occurrence since the big red apes are scarce and becoming even more difficult to spot.

Such encounters are fascinating, particularly when the orangutan determines that I’m in his space and rains down branches.

But for pure pleasure it’s hard to beat a one-on-one encounter with a rehabilitant orangutan.

I was sitting under a tree at the Sepilok Nature Reserve, in Sabah, Malaysia, and a seven-year-old orangutan named BJ wandered over.  He was a “rehabilitant”, an unfortunate word that describes the dozens of apes at Sepilok which had been captured for the illegal pet trade and then confiscated by Malaysian officials.  I looked into BJ’s eyes and was reminded of a comment made by Malcolm MacDonald, former governor-general of colonial Malaya and Borneo: “These members of the order Primates contemplate you, when you meet them, with melancholy eyes, as if they had just read Darwin’s Origin of Species and were painfully aware of being your poor relations who have not done so well in life.”

They certainly look smart, and we want them to be smart, but really, how intelligent are they?

Shuffling upright, with his red arms hanging almost to his ankles, BJ sat down, leaned over my shoulder, and watched me scribble notes.

“I can teach you to write, BJ,” I optimistically said, half expecting him to respond.  I engaged BJ in a deep, meaningful stare.  “This is how you write your name.”  I wrote the initials B.J. and said the letters.  “BEE-JAY.”  BJ’s chin was on my shoulder.  Before I could repeat the exercise, BJ ripped the notebook out of my hands, stuck it in his mouth and scampered up a tree.

BJ returned and I had a tug of war with him over my notebook, now minus a cover, which lodged in the ape’s stomach.  I don’t think this was literary criticism, and I should have been grateful that BJ’s energies took such benign form, since wild male orangutans have been known to attack people.  BJ however, having been raised by people and treated as a surrogate son, has had most of the wildness taken from him, and when I scolded him he eventually relinquished the notebook.  I was the alpha male, I was the orangutan equivalent of the big orangutan patriarch with the cheek pouches; the equivalent of the gorilla silverback.  BJ took his place again at my side, as docile as a golden retriever, his chin leaning on my shoulder, his arm casually draped around my neck.  He reached for the pen.  Ah, I thought.  He’s going to try to write.  Instead BJ chewed the Bic like a candy cane.  I snatched it back and dried the pen on his red hair.  He matched my action by grabbing a twig and rubbing it on my salt and pepper chest hair.

This orangutan wasn’t making my ape-human breakthrough very easy.

Eventually BJ settled down and I continued writing for the third time.  “Watch me: BEE JAY.  BEE – JAY.”  I looked into his eyes.  He looked at me.  We had made contact.  I had a protegé.  “B – J.  B …”  Faster than the downstroke of the J, BJ had nipped off the button on the epaulet of my quick dry, look-like-a-real-explorer jungle shirt, and darted up a nearby tree, all the while making funny whistling noises through the button.

* * * * *

I recalled another meaningful encounter with wild animals that took place in the Galapagos.

I was swimming in a tidal pool with several fur seals.  A pelican feather floated on the surface and I grabbed it and dove down about a meter.  I let the feather loose and it started to float towards the surface.  As I reached to get it a fur seal flashed in and captured it in her mouth.  She swam a couple of meters away and released it, like a dog releasing a ball with the expression “let’s play”.  I swam to the feather and just as I made a grab for it the fur seal swooped in again and played keepaway.  This went on for about five minutes until I was exhausted and freezing.

* * * * *

BJ’s relatives are being shot in a similar manner to the way they were killed during the mid-19th century, when Alfred Russel Wallace famously shot, boiled, pickled and stuffed 17 of the red apes.

Wallace recalled how the hunt evolved:

“Some Dyaks saw another mias [local name for orangutan] … and came to tell me.  We found it to be a rather large one, very high up on a tall tree.  At the second shot it fell, rolling over, but almost immediately got up again and began to climb.  At a third shot it fell dead.  This was also a full-grown female, and while preparing to carry it home, we found a young one face downward in the bog.  This little creature was only about a foot long, and had evidently been hanging to its mother when she first fell.  Luckily it did not appear to have been wounded, and after we had cleaned the mud out of its mouth it began to cry out, and seemed quite strong and active.”

Wallace grew attached to the baby ape, writing:

“I must tell you of the addition to my household of an orphan baby, a curious little half-nigger baby, which I have nursed now more than a month….I am afraid you would call it an ugly baby, for it has dark brown skin and red hair,  very large mouth….It has powerful lungs, and sometimes screams tremendously, so I hope it will live. Don’t be alarmed; I was the cause of its mother’s death…..I can safely say, what so many have said before with much less truth, ‘There never was such a baby as my baby,’ and I am sure nobody ever had such a dear little duck of a darling of a little brown hairy baby before.”

Wallace’s tender touch only went so far though – when the cute red-haired “darling” died, Wallace unceremoniously skinned him and boiled the bones in a giant iron skillet.  A guy’s gotta make a living, after all.

* * * * *

Most people who work with orangutans have made emotional connections with the apes.

Biruté Galdikas, who has spent well over two decades living with orangutans at Tanjung Puting, in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, tells of how one of her “rehabilitant” charges named Sugito reacted to human mothering.  In doing so she also provides insight on how the human-ape contact brought out her own mothering instincts.

“I had raised Sugito from infancy,” Biruté Galdikas recalled in National Geographic in 1980.  “I had cuddled him, called him endearing names, and handed him tidbits of food.  Taking my cue from the wild orangutan mothers I was observing, I had let him cling to me night and day.”

Alfred Russel Wallace too was “mothering”.  Seldom has he written passages of such tenderness and humor than those he penned about his “little brown hairy baby” while in Sarawak.

“When handled or nursed, [the baby orangutan] was very quiet and contented, but when laid down by itself would invariably cry; and for the first few nights was very restless and noisy.  I fitted up a little box for a cradle, with a soft mat for it to lie upon, which was changed and washed every day, and I soon found it necessary to wash the little mias as well.  After I had done so a few times, it came to like the operation, and as soon as it was dirty would begin crying, and not leave off till I took it out and carried it to the spout, when it immediately became quiet, although it would wince a little at the first rush of the cold water and make ridiculously wry faces while the stream was running over its head.  It enjoyed the wiping and rubbing dry amazingly, and when I brushed its hair seemed to be perfectly happy, lying quite still, with its arms and legs stretched out, while I thoroughly brushed the long hair of its back and arms.  For the first few days it clung desperately with all four hands to whatever it could lay hold of, and I had to be careful to keep my beard out of its way, as its fingers clutched hold of hair more tenaciously than any thing else, and it was impossible to free myself without assistance. When restless, it would struggle about with its hands up in the air trying to find something to take hold of, and, when it had got a bit of stick or rag in two or three of its hands, seemed quite happy….I endeavored to make an artifical mother, by wrapping up a piece of buffalo-skin into a bundle, and suspending it about a foot from the floor.  At first this seemed to suit it admirably, as it could sprawl its legs about and always find some hair, which it grasped with the greatest tenacity.  I was now in hopes that I had made the little orphan quite happy; and so it seemed for some time till it began to remember its lost parent and try to suck.  It would pull itself up close to the skin, and try about everywhere for a likely place; but, as it only succeeded in getting mouthfuls of hair and wool, it would be greatly disgusted, and scream violently, and, after two or three attempts, let go altogether.  One day it got some wool into its throat, and I thought it would have choked, but after much gasping it recovered, and I was obliged to take the imitation mother to pieces again, and give up this last attempt to exercise the little creature.

He also noted how helpless the orangutan infant was compared to a monkey of similar age.

“After I had had the little mias about three weeks, I fortunately obtained a young hare-lip monkey (Macacus cynomolgus), which, though small, was very active, and could feed itself.  I placed it in the same box with the mias, and they immediately became excellent friends.  The little monkey would sit upon the other’s stomach, or even on its face, without the least regard to its feelings.  While I was feeding the mias, the monkey would sit by, picking up all that was spilt…; and as soon as I had finished would pick off what was left sticking to the mias’s lips, and then pull open its mouth and see if any still remained inside.  The little helpless mias would submit to all these insults with the most exemplary patience, only too glad to have something warm near it.

It was curious to observe the different actions of these two animals, which could not have differed much in age.  The mias, like every young baby, lying on its back quite helpless, rolling lazily from side to side, wishing to grasp something, but hardly able to guide its fingers to any definite object and expressing its wants by a most infantine scream; the little monkey, on the other hand, in constant motion, seizing hold of the smallest objects with the greatest precision. “

But no amount of loving can replace basic nutrition, and Wallace’s pet orangutan, which he had planned to take back to England, fell ill.

“After five weeks [the mias] cut its two upper front teeth, but in all this time it had not grown the least bit…no doubt owing to the want of milk  [it suffered] an attack of diarrhoea…but a small dose of castor-oil…cured it.  A week or two afterward it was again taken ill, and this time more seriously.  The symptoms were exactly those of intermittent fever, accompanieed by watery swellings on the feet and head….after lingering for a week a most pitiable object, died, after being in my possesion nearly three months.  I much regretted the loss of my little pet, which I had at one time looked forward to bringing up to years of maturity, and taking home to England.  Its weight was three pounds nine ounces, its height fourteen inches, and the spread of its arms twenty-three inches.  I preserved its skin and skeleton, and in doing so found that when it fell from the tree it must have broken an arm and a leg, which had, however, united so rapidly that I had only noticed the hard swellings on the limbs where the irregular junction of the bones had taken place. “

Just as he let his mias “child” play with the monkey, Biruté Galdikas in Kalimantan too encouraged cross-species fraternizing among her biological son Bin-Bin and the rehabilitant orangutans at the isolated camp in the swamp forest.  Having few human children to play with, Bin-Bin naturally made friends with the juvenile red apes.  One particular playmate was Princess, a young orangutan which researcher Gary Shapiro was trying to teach to speak American Sign Language.  Bin-Bin-the boy and Princess-the orangutan communicated in basic sign language, which probably included gestures of their own creation.  Unfortunately Bin-Bin’s human contacts were less fruitful, and when I met the tyke I said hello in English and got no response.  Hello in Indonesian brought a glimmer of recognition.  Hello in hooting Gibbon brought squeals of delight.  Ultimately, Bin-Bin’s father Rod Brindamous decided that California might be a better place for his son than a sticky black river campsite over-run by red apes, and father and son moved to the States.

Sugito, Biruté Galdikas’s surrogate orangutan-child, who was allowed to run free while her biological son Bin-Bin was sometimes kept caged for his own protection, developed human-like psychoses. “Now Sugito was 7,” Galdikas writes, “and I faced the dreadful consequences of inadvertently raising an orangutan as a human being — an adolescent who was not only incredibly curious, active, and tool using, but one who killed.”  For despite Biruté’ Galdikas’s best mothering efforts, Sugito had picked up a bad habit –he held baby orangutans under the water until they drowned.  Perhaps even worse, Sugito had tried the same trick with a human visitor to the research camp.

Galdikas, like any mother with a child turned criminal, was puzzled and distraught, since wild orangutans are normally not killers.  “Sugito was something different,” she rationalized.  “Perhaps the biblical analogy was apt: Raised by a human mother and exposed to human culture, he had eaten of the ‘tree of knowledge’ and lost his orangutan innocence.  Now, in a very non-orangutan way, he was acting out his jealousy of the infants who had seemingly replaced him in my affection.”

When Wallace went to Southeast Asia people were not sure whether the orangutan was a big monkey or a lower-form of human being.  Wallace pondered the differences between people and other animals; he asked whether orangutans have egos and if so what would be the evolutionary benefit of such a gift.

“If man is but a highly intellectual animal developed from a lower animal form under the law of the survival of the fittest, how did this “second-self,” this “unconscious ego,” come into existence?  Have the mollusk and the reptile, the dog and the ape, “unconscious egos”?  And if so, why?  And what use are they to these creatures, so that they might have been developed by means of the struggle for existence? “

The question of whether other forms of life have consciousness has challenged philosophers and scientists for millenia.  And the orangutan, because of its similarities to a human in so many ways, has always been a particularly provocative companion.

The first westerner to describe the orangutan was Dutchman Jacob de Bondt (Bontius).  In the early seventeenth century he presented a drawing of a female who hid “her secret parts with no great modesty from unknown men, and also her face with her hands (if one may speak thus), weeping copiously, uttering groans, and expressing other human acts so that you would say nothing human was lacking in her but speech.  The Javanese say, in truth, that they can talk, but do not wish to, lest they should be compelled to labor.  The name they give to it is Ourang Outang, which means a man of the woods, and they affirm that they are born from the lust of the Indian women, who mix with apes and monkeys with detestable sensuality.”

Wallace continued to use the scientific name Simia satyrus (which roughly means the pathologically-active sexual ape) to describe the orangutan,; it was only decades later that scientists classified the orangutan, whose Malay/Indonesian name means “person of the forest”, as Pongo pygmaeus.

The satyrus appelation is accurate though, since orangutans certainly are sexual.

At Biruté Galdikas’s Camp Leakey in Kalimantan, which includes an orangutan rehabilitation station, schizophrenic orangutans jump the animal/human line all the time.  They murder.  They rape.  They steal. They vandalize.  They refuse to pay attention in class.  They put dirty things in their mouths.  They beg.  They act like people.

Male orangutans have been known to sexually assault women.  Galdikas tells of how Gondul, a rehabilitant orangutan she had raised from infancy (for a while Gondul slept with Biruté Galdikas and her husband Rod Brindamour), grabbed the cook, ripped off her sarong and tried to rape her.

For a cinematographic parallel, one might look at the closing sequence in Bo Derek’s “Tarzan the Ape Man” (in which an orangutan found only in Malaysia and Indonesia features in a movie allegedly set in Africa which was shot in Sri Lanka) in which actress Bo Derek came dangerously close to being sexually assaulted by the orangutan.  Miles O’Keeffe, her leading man, was tossed aside by the enamored, seemingly tame, ape.  Playboy magazine, in a picture spread showing the incident, noted that during a love scene: “C.J., the jealous orangutan, didn’t much like the idea of Tarzan and Jane having fun without him.  In a totally impromptu move, he pulled 195-pound Miles O’Keeffe off Bo, interrupting one of the movie’s steamier scenes….”We wrestled with him for an hour and a half,” recalls Bo.  “Orangutans are several times stronger than people and have four things to grab you with.'”

Just as male orangutans can be as aggressive as men, female orangutans can be victimized like women.  John MacKinnon, one of the few scientists who has studied all three of the great apes in the wild, reported that several Dayak longhouses in central Kalimantan keep female orangutans in the longhouse for use as primate equivalents of inflatable dolls.  In an article in the British journal New Scientist, he called the world’s attention to the danger that Dayak men, tempted by a long evening’s revelry, might spread venereal disease through at least part of the wild orangutan population by infecting captive female orangutans which are later released in the wild.

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who has studied pygmy chimps and other apes, argues that their human-like emotions, intellect and ability to acquire language should make them eligible for “semi-human” legal status.  She is convinced that their emotions, intellect and consciousness are at least “morally equivalent” to those of profoundly retarded children.  “We certainly would not put these children in a zoo to be gawked at as examples of nature,” she says, “nor would we permit medical experimentation to be conducted on them.”

Put another way, by Carl Linnaeus, the famous Swedish scientist who developed the modern scheme of binomial nomenclature, the system used to put order into taxonomy.  “It is remarkable that the stupidest ape differs so little from the wisest man, that the surveyor of nature has yet to be found who can draw the line between them.”

* * * * *

Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin agreed on many things, but disagreed on one major point.

Both  Walace and Darwin accepted natural selection as the mechanism for evolution and the development of new species.  They both felt that, as Darwin said, “Man [has] risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale….[and this fact] may give him hopes for a still higher destiny in the distant future.”

But they strongly disagreed about whether natural selection applied to people.

Charles Darwin felt that Homo sapiens was simply a product of the same process of natural selection that applies to all other creatures, and that “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origins.”

But Alfred Russel Wallace felt that the mechanism of natural selection alone accounted for everything up to, but not including Homo sapiens. He wrote:

[Darwin concluded that] Man’s whole nature — physical, mental, intellectual, and moral — was developed from the lower animals by means of the same laws of variation and survival; and, as a consequence of this belief,…there was no difference in kind betwen man’s nature and animal nature, but only one of degree.

Wallace obviously thought there was a difference in kind, and asked why some skills, seemingly not essential to survival, developed.  Man’s ability to reason, to temporize, to cry at Italian opera and dance the waltz and make music and tell stories and remember birthdays to some kind of mysterious, benevolent, external force.

“[This class of human faculties] cannot, therefore, be thus accounted for. Such are the the capacity to form ideal conceptions of space and time, of eternity, and infinity — the capacity for intense artistic feelings of pleasure — and for those abstract notions…. which render geometry and arithmetic possible….  How were all or any of these faculties first developed, when they could have been of no possible use to man in his early stages of barbarism? How could’natural selection’, or survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence, at all favor the development of mental powers so entirely removed from the material necessities of savage men….The highly developed artistic and moral qualities of modern man could not be put downto natural selection.”

How did such abstract characteristics come about? Wallace avoided using the word “God”, but spoke of God-like forces.

“Neither natural selection nor the more general theory of evolution can give any account whatever of the origin of sensational or conscious life.  They may teach us how, by chemical, electrical, or higher natural laws, the organized body can be built up, can grow, can reproduce its like; but those laws and that growth cannot even be conceived as endowing the newly-arranged atoms with consciousness.  But the moral and higher intellectual nature of man is as unique a phenomenon as was conscious life on its first appearance in the world, and the one is almost as difficult to conceive as originating by any law of evolution as the other.  We may even go further, and maintain that there are certain purely physical characteristics of the human race which are not explicable on the theory of variation and survival of the fittest.  The brain, the organs of speech, the hand, and the external form of man, offer some special difficulties in this respect. “

* * * * *

Even from fifty meters away I could tell the orangutan sitting near the top of the rainforest tree was an adult male. His size, for one thing, as tall as a child but with the bulk of a rugby prop on steroids.  Even more striking were his enlarged cheek pads and throat pouch, hairless hunks of flesh that framed his face into a silly grin.  I quietly approached, but the big ape saw us coming and hurled dead branches at me, wanting to be left alone.

Some scientists say that soon an in-the-wild sighting like this will be impossible. Although some 50,000 to 60,000 orangutans survive on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, habitat loss, illegal logging, fires and poaching are taking their toll.  Willie Smits, head of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, predicts that, if current trends continue, “in 20 years there will be no orangutans left in the wild.”

No orangutans. No orangutan tales. Just the memory of a poor relative who hasn’t done so well in life.

[Jeffrey A. McNeely co-authored one version of this article]

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