Merah vs. the Snowman

One snowy winter at the Saint Louis Zoo, the keepers decided to build a snowman for the orangutans who were housed indoors. The snowman had carrots for a nose, nuts for the eyes and raisins for the mouth. The keepers then added hats and clothes before they took the snowman into the exhibit. Merah, the female orangutan and mother of 5 year old Sugriwa, was very curious. Her eyes were cautious and her face looked suspicious. She didn’t like the look of this stranger in her home. Sugriwa, being younger and presumably less cautious, was very interested and ran towards the snowman to investigate. But Merah got a hold of Sugriwa before he got too close and held him back. She found a big stick, then walked up to the snowman, huffing and standing as tall as she could to look big, then stabbed the snowman in the head from behind. The snowman fell over, beaten by Merah. Merah waited until she had “killed” the snowman before she would let Sugriwa near the “body.”

Sugriwa Gets a Sister

Merah, a female orangutan, was expecting another baby. She had been a wonderful mother to Sugriwa, her 8 year old son. She was very attentive and handled Sugriwa with love and care. She was such a good mother to Sugi that when Rubih arrived Sugi was jealous. He wasn’t mean to Rubih, but would pester his mother constantly for attention. He would push, slap and dangle above Merah to annoy her. Sometimes Rubih would fuss making a high-pitched squeal. Merah would gently put one of her fingers in Rubih’s mouth like a pacifier to calm her down. Sugriwa’s pestering behavior went on for a few days. Then Junior, being the protective father and 200 lbs heavier than Sugriwai, stepped in and held Sugriwa on the ground. Sugriwa would try to wiggle his way out from Junior’s grasp, but Junior was too strong. Finally, Sugriwa had to move to another, separate part of the exhibit so he wouldn’t bother Merah and Rubih anymore. He could still see and hear his mother, but needed to learn to share her with his new sister before he could return to the exhibit.

Help in a Sticky Situation

One activity that the keepers encourage the apes to participate in is positive reinforcement training. This process is a form of enrichment for the apes and most of them love it. We teach the apes to cooperate with us by rewarding the behavior we are looking for, usually with a special food treat. Teaching the apes to present their body parts or to accept injections can take a lot of stress out of their lives, as well as stimulate their minds. Sometimes, however, an ape can be stubborn about things by refusing to participate or as is also common, the ape trains the human! When keeper Terri first started training Merah, a 31-year-old female orangutan, she generally wanted no part of it. She would demand the treat without cooperating, then become angry – spitting, huffing and raising her hair – and leave when Terri wouldn’t give her the treat for nothing. It was during one of these sessions, when Terri was trying to coax her into participating that Terri stepped down from the floor into the drain gutter that runs outside of all of the cages. Doing so allowed Terri the opportunity to better show Merah what Terri was offering for her compliance. It worked, much to Terri’s happiness, she came over eagerly for some grapes. In her great excitement, Terri forgot how vulnerable she was standing in the gutter. Merah, of course, noticed it right away and now there’s no doubt in Terri’s mind that the grapes weren’t what interested her the most. She can get her long, skinny forearm under the cage and out just enough to wrap her equally long, skinny fingers around an unsuspecting (dumb!) keeper’s leg. And that’s precisely what she did to Terri. In a flash, she had Terri just above the ankle. Terri didn’t panic; she knew all Merah could do was hold her in that position. But there Terri was, stuck. Terri started talking to Merah, “Merah would you please let me go?” and “That’s not very nice, Merah,” a barrage of comments that meant nothing to her and didn’t free Terri from her predicament. She realized she would have to call the other keeper and have her pull her from behind. But before Terri could call out, Junior, the male orangutan, who had been waiting patiently for his turn at training (ever the gentleman), rushed over and picked Merah up, decisively removing her from Terri’s leg and replacing her body with his. He got all the grapes that day. Merah will still occasionally try to get keepers to stand in the gutter.

Beware of Apes with Sticks!

Written by an ape keeper.

Give an ape a stick and you’re looking for trouble. That’s a lesson I learned early in my experiences with these incredibly intelligent (and mischievous) animals.

While cleaning the orangutans’ holding cages one day, I felt a sharp pain in the middle of my back. At first, I didn’t think much of it. The orangutans were safely locked in their display. Our job can be a dangerous one. While there are obvious hazards when working with animals, the vast majority of our injuries are from the environment where we work. It’s not uncommon to have a couple of bumps, bruises or scrapes. There are plenty of rocks and branches to run into or uneven surfaces to slip on.

As I continued to hose the floor of the orangutan cage, I felt another stab to my back. I swung around to see what I had run into, but there was nothing there. Getting back to my hosing, I thought about how strange this was. Then, it hit me. It had to be the orangutans on the other side of the door. But how could they reach me from there?

Sometimes you can sense that someone is looking at you or moving your way. I had that feeling. As I quickly spun around, I caught a glimpse of an object as it disappeared above the display door.

I had assumed that the display door and doorframe were completely solid. However, as we have learned over and over when working with primates, if there is a small defect or oversight in construction, the animal is going to find it. I noticed a very small hole, barely the size of a dime, in one corner of the doorframe. As I took a closer look I realized that someone was looking right back at me. It was Merah, one of our female orangutans.

Orangutans typically don’t like to maintain direct eye contact with you for very long. Merah quickly pulled back from the door – not because she didn’t want me to look at her, but I’m convinced so that her game wouldn’t end! “Sure, I’ll play,” I thought, “but I’m gonna win.”

As I returned to work with my back to the door, I listened intently for her next move. I could hear the rustle as she slowly pushed the bamboo through the hole towards me. I whipped around and grabbed the bamboo just as it began to disappear into the display. After a brief and playful tug of war the bamboo was mine.

I’m not sure that I really won. Realistically, if she wanted that stick, she could have wrestled it from me. We are no match for an orangutan’s strength.

As I put my eye towards that hole, curious about Merah’s reaction, I suddenly realized that I had played into her game. Another stick was coming right at me – right at my eye!!