IINDIANAPOLIS — Most people never have the chance to gaze into the eyes of an orangutan for an intense inter-species moment. But visitors to the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center at the Indianapolis Zoo — which had its grand opening on Memorial Day weekend — will experience that and much more.
With the zoo’s long-held commitment to teaching conservation, not just displaying animals for entertainment, the project actually began with support from the Kutai National Park in Borneo. Then, in 2010, when the zoo took on four orangutans from the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines and three that were “rescued” from private ownership in the entertainment industry, the orangutan “team,” as they are known in sports-conscious Indy, became a reality.
Along with the great apes from Iowa, one of the world’s leading primatologists, Robert Shumaker (known as “Dr. Rob”), came to the Indianapolis Zoo as vice president of life sciences. It has been his vision and knowledge that have guided the design and construction of the center, even as he has continued the cognitive research (using computers) that he had begun with several of the orangutans as far back as the mid-’90s, when he was at the National Zoo in Washington.
“We need a fresh approach to orangutan conservation or they could go extinct in 50 years,” Shumaker emphasizes. “If we get people to see them move and to understand how intelligent they are, they’ll feel much more compelled to care about them in the wild.”
The center’s focal point is a large, three-level atrium where visitors can observe the orangutans from the outdoor plaza or from large multi-view windows inside the main building. At these windows, visitors can come face-to-face with an orangutan who is looking them up and down, staring at jewelry or red hair (they’re fascinated by its resemblance to their own), pointing at tattoos, clapping hands along with zoogoers or sticking chewing gum on the window glass to get a reaction and then licking it off and chewing it once again. It’s also fun to watch the orangutans swinging on “ropes” (firemen’s hoses), climbing up cables, or interacting with one another.
The other viewing windows are at the three satellite “oases,” where the orangutans can go to be alone or in smaller groups or to get to the climbing ladders to the Myrta Pulliam Hutan Trail. (Orangutan is from the Malay words “orang” and “hutan,” meaning “people of the forest.”) The East Oasis is the first window one encounters at the center, right behind the large welcome sign with an orangutan statue on it. Rising at an angle to the Trail’s first platform is a glass tube with a ladder inside.
Once up top, the adventurous orangutans can walk with hands on one cable and feet on another (they have opposable big toes as well as thumbs), and then swing themselves up onto a resting spot before continuing all the way to the North Oasis and down that ladder into a small, grassy yard. The West Oasis also has ground-level windows for communing with whichever orangutan is there and a ladder for that ape to climb or have access to the trail.
The orangutans at the center (an eighth arrived in 2013; a ninth is expected this summer) were all born in captivity; five spent time in the entertainment industry. Most were previously kept in confined spaces designed for other apes, not for the high-flying orangutans whose natural habitat is in the rain forests of Sumatra and Borneo.
Thus, they haven’t all had the daring to try out the trail. But the ever-curious Rocky (almost 10 years old) and his female pal Knobi (almost 35), who acts as an adoptive mom, have made frequent forays, surprising visitors by dangling from one finger or peering precariously over the edge of a platform. Some observers might need reassurance that orangutans don’t jump down from anything higher than 20 feet and that they routinely live as high as 150 feet off the ground.
Other facts about orangutans: Their arm span can be twice their height, up to 9 feet; they can live as long as 60 years; they have a concentration of muscle mass above their waist; and the adult males have a blanket intolerance of each other — they could fight to the death!
Thus Azy, the ape who has known Shumaker for most of his 36 years, is housed with the female apes — and is occasionally called upon by trainers to break up disputes among the “gals” (Knobi, Lucy, Nicky, and Katy). He and Rocky (who is still immature) get along fine, but Charly, who is 20, and Azy are kept apart. Newcomer Basan, at 13, is still young and somewhat shy.
In the Efroymson Family Exploration Hub, there are films, exhibits, a “lab” where visitors can watch Dr. Rob work with the orangutans on the computers, and a kiosk where visitors can donate $5 to plant a tree in the Sumatran rain forest. One of the exhibits highlights conservation efforts around the world; another details the seven-to-nine-year relationship between orangutan mothers and their offspring; and another stresses the “puzzle-master” qualities of the orangutans. Examples of the latter abound: Rocky has figured out how to pull up the caulking around the center’s windows on three separate occasions; and Azy once bargained an expensive electrical cord for a special cupcake, not settling for his usual treats.
The most striking architectural feature of the center is the main building’s 150-foot spire, whose tilted angle was suggested by roof lines in Sumatra, according to lead architect Jonathan Hess. Called the Nina Mason Pulliam Beacon of Hope, it is lighted each night as a symbol for saving the world’s orangutans. Another immediate eye-catcher is the Skyline ride that will carry zoo visitors in four-person gondolas on a track that parallels the Hutan Trail, so that they will be at eye level with the orangutans.
In so many ways, zoo officials have tried to accommodate and stimulate the orangutans’ natural curiosity, but at every opportunity, they have also sparked the curiosity of the humans who visit the International Orangutan Center. And if the zoo’s mission has been, in CEO Mike Crowther’s words, “to engage, enlighten, and empower” visitors, this newest project is a smashing success.