You may have seen the YouTube footage of an orangutan cooling her face with a wet towel. Filmed on a sweltering day in August at Tama Zoological Park in Tokyo, the ape is seen dipping a towel in a pond, wringing it out, and patting it on her face.
The clip was posted on news sites around the world, and has been viewed more than 1 million times. Why the fascination? The usual interest with any great ape using a tool or doing something funny at a zoo? Yes, but in this case we can also closely identify with what she’s doing — we’ve all done the same thing on a hot summer’s day — and that forcefully brings home our similarities to apes. When I looked at it I followed a whole load of other links to orangutans doing stuff in zoos.
Whatever you think about zoos and the conditions that animals are kept in — Ueno Zoo in particular, opened in 1882, has been criticized for the cramped living areas that animals have to endure — they allow close observation of animals that is difficult in the wild.
So what was the Tama Zoo orangutan doing? It seems that she had observed a human, perhaps a zookeeper, doing the same thing, and was copying the action. It doesn’t appear that the orangutan had spontaneously decided to get a towel and wet it in order to cool off.
But perhaps there’s another reason why the YouTube clip became such a sensation: Orangutans are less well known than the other great apes. When animals in captivity do interesting things, it helps spread awareness both of their intelligence and of their status as endangered animals.
In the wild, orangutans have been recorded using tools to get food. One study even reported an orangutan using a sharpened stick to catch fish. And while wild studies will always be important because they tell us what the animals are naturally capable of, captive studies have provided insights into the orangutan mind that we would struggle to get from wild observations.
For example, in Dublin Zoo, Ireland, an orangutan male was filmed rescuing a coot chick from the water in its enclosure.
The sight of the powerful male ever so gently helping the sick bird from the water is extraordinary. Orangutans are solitary apes, and the adult males are not known for their gentle nature — they attract fertile females by calling, and then forcibly mate with them. (If that isn’t disturbing enough, male orangutans have been known to turn their sexual attention to human women, too. The cook of the primatologist Birute Galdikas — she is to orangutans what Jane Goodall is to chimps — was raped by a male orangutan, and actress Julia Roberts was grabbed by a male orangutan while filming in 1996: It took five men to remove the ape, and footage of that is on YouTube, too.)
Other captive animals have been seen rowing a boat, and picking up a hammer and saw left by a zoo worker. (They have not yet been seen constructing anything.) At the Milwaukee County Zoo in the United States, zookeepers have been using iPads to entertain orangutans. One app the animals particularly like — appropriately, since they like to spear fish — is “iFish Pond,” which simulates a pond with fish swimming in it.
Back at Tama Zoo again, Tomoyuki Tajima of Kyoto University recently published a paper in the journal Primates detailing how orangutans can intervene in fights — effectively acting as peacemaker. Since the animals don’t usually live in groups in the wild, the role of peacemaker is presumably a new one, something that the animals have learned to do to maintain group harmony. How very Japanese of them.
Incidentally, the animal who acted most often as peacemaker was a female called Gypsy, who is, at 57 years old, the oldest captive orangutan in the world. The oldest animal until May this year was Molly, also of Tama Zoo, who died aged 59 years and four months. Tama Zoo must be doing something right for its apes to be living for so long.
But if it succeeds, perhaps the most extraordinary behavior seen in captive orangutans will be in an orangutan sanctuary in Malaysia, where French primatologist Francine Neago wants to teach animals to read and spell in English.
Last month, Neago told Malaysian newspaper The Star that orangutans love to learn and want to express themselves. “They are very intelligent; they are just like normal children, but a bit different,” she said.
The same but different: It’s a phrase you hear a lot in Southeast Asia. In comparing orangutans and children this seems to be going a little further, however. Neago apparently taught an orangutan called Bulan at the University of California, Los Angeles, to communicate via a computer, using up to 150 words, and she is convinced she can repeat this with other orangutans.
She has applied for permission to open a sanctuary and a language school. “It is a unique program,” she told The Star. “People should know how important it is. We can also get volunteers and students to come here to study.” If you’re bored or fancy a change of scene, you should check it out.
But do take note of the tragic end to Neago’s experiment with Bulan: He was killed in a fight with a chimpanzee.
Rowan Hooper (@rowhoop on Twitter) is the news editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human).”