Nickname: The Wily Thinker
Gender: Female
Place of Birth: Wassanaar Zoo, Holland
Personality Type: Calculating

Who is Merah?

Merah is an intelligent, feisty female orangutan, considered by keepers to be one of the brightest apes that we have at the Saint Louis Zoo. An avid tool user, she has used sticks for a variety of purposes, including knocking out some of our light fixtures above the caging! Like all orangutans, she is very patient and can be quite calculating, waiting until just the right opportunity to grab a hose or rake from an unsuspecting keeper.

Another interesting facet of Merah’s personality is her propensity to collect and hoard items. She makes giant, comfortable nests to rest and sleep in, utilizing not only hay, but other odds and ends as well. Often keepers find pieces of unwanted greens such as kale or cabbage lining her nest. Favored toys such as bowls will also be found. Presumably she likes to keep bowls handy because she uses them both for water and food collection and they make handy head and face covers when she is ready for privacy. If Merah has been given blankets, sheets or clothing, those items will certainly end up in her nest. It’s as if she went on a scavenger hunt and saved all of her treasures.

One other activity Merah enjoys is washing windows. Since she was born in captivity, we assume that this task is one that she has watched keepers perform many, many times and at some point, decided to emulate the behavior. If she is given rags or other cloths, she will gladly clean the windows with great enthusiasm.

A Mother's Touch

Orangutan mothers have been called “the best mothers in the world,” and Merah meets all expectations in the maternal department. She has lovingly and protectively raised her son, Sugriwa, and now has another adorable infant, Rubih. Unlike the other apes, orangutans are “single mothers.” In the wild, males do not participate in childcare nor do the males socialize with mothers. Instead, the female is the exclusive caretaker which is likely one reason orangutan mothers have the longest interval between babies of any mammal.

Orangutan mothers are the definition of tolerance and patience; indeed they seem to take real joy in caring for a baby. Merah’s patience is easily observed in her interactions with baby Rubih. Rubih is discovering the world around her, which now includes mom as toy. She can be seen climbing all over her mom while Merah is trying to sleep; only when Rubih is in a particularly uncomfortable position will Merah reach out with her long arm and gently move her into a better position. We don’t know where Merah learned this behavior, but she has always used her finger as a pacifier with her infants. Older children will remain with their moms after the birth of her next infant. Daughters typically stay longer with their moms than do sons. Sugriwa has grown noticeable since the birth of Rubih and has been something of a pest to his mother. She, in turn, has lost some of her patience towards him. Consequently, we have temporarily separated Sugriwa to provide Merah some peace and quiet with her daughter. We will allow her to decide whether she wants Sugriwa to rejoin the family.

Merah has lived outdoors thus her new outdoor home is not one she fears. Quite the opposite, Merah inspected her entire enclosure when she first ventured outside and prefers remaining out versus inside. Rubih is benefiting from growing up in a more complex and enriched environment and is watching everything her mother does, which is exactly how she will learn to be a smart female orangutan. She will likely take on some of her mother’s feisty personality and manipulative skills in the process.