Orangutans, Resistance and the Zoo

While bread and circuses might work on the human species, orangutans require a different combination of incentives. Their control lies in bananas and sex. Orangutans are almost helpless to such things. It’s instinct, don’t you know. Surely, if San Diego Zoo officials could just discover the correct instinctual cocktail, they could solve their orangutan problem before it got any worse. All they needed was a lot of bananas, some willing female participants, and time.

Efforts on this project began in earnest in the summer of 1985. The new Heart of the Zoo exhibit had opened three years earlier, and day to day operations could not have been going better. But then that darn Ken Allen started acting up. Ken was born in February of 1971 to San Diego’s Maggie and Bob. He was, officially speaking, a Bornean orangutan – although he never stepped foot on the island nor knew anything about arboreal culture. It might be more correct to classify him as a zoo orangutan. Institutional life was the only one that Ken ever experienced. The zoo is where he was born, and the zoo is where he died of lymphoma in 2000. In between, Ken had to deal with captivity on a daily basis. Interestingly, the San Diego Zoo understood from the very beginning that he was going to be more difficult to handle than the facility’s previous orangutans.

In his nursery, Ken would unscrew every nut that he could find and remove the bolts. Keepers would no sooner put them back when he would be at it again. Nor could he ever be kept in his room. One of his favorite schemes, a trainer described, was to “grab someone’s hand who was waving at him, and swing himself up.” Good luck trying to catch the little red ape after that. Yet, for the zoo, his later life would represent a much greater challenge. In fact, when Ken was first moved into the Heart of the Zoo exhibit, he was caught throwing rocks at a television crew that was filming the neighboring gorillas. When he ran out of rocks, Ken threw his own shit. The crew scattered. In an ironic twist, there would be a similar problem at the zoo several years down the road. Large glass windows had been installed in the exhibit, and the orangutans took to pitching rocks at them. San Diego officials, thinking quickly, instituted an exchange program. One non-thrown stone would get you a banana. But the orangutans were not interested and kept trying to break the windows. The park finally had to bring in a contractor to dig up the entire ground floor of the exhibit in order to remove all of the rocks, as each shattered window cost the zoo $900 to replace. What happened next? The orangutans began to tear the ceramic insulators off of the wall and threw them instead. Evidently, these animals really wanted out.

Ken Allen would make his first successful escape on June 13, 1985. Keepers found him mingling among visitors outside of his exhibit. After he was placed into isolation, officials set to work trying to figure out exactly how he did it. A few years previous, Ken had constructed a ladder out of some fallen branches. “He was very methodical about it,” one employee noted. “He would carefully put the foot of the ladder on the ground, and pound it with his hand to be sure it was solid, and then he would climb to the top of the wall and climb back down.” But there was no ladder to be seen this time. So that was ruled out. It might have been human error: a door left ajar or something. But that did not appear to be the case either. The zoo was definitely stumped. Nonetheless, it was not going take any chances. Cinder-blocks were stacked to raise the height of the retaining wall, and several portions were smoothed over to prevent any handholds. These alterations, the zoo anticipated, would do the trick. They didn’t.

Ken escaped again on July 29th and then again in early August. Each time, San Diego would make additional changes. The walls were made taller. The surfaces were made smoother. Electrified wires were added to guard the perimeter. Keepers brought in new females into the exhibit. The hope here was that one of young ladies might attract Ken’s attention. We want, the trainers’ stated bluntly, “to turn his wanderlust into just lust.” San Diego even started using spies. Zoo employees would disguise themselves as visitors. They would dress up in blue jeans, sunglasses, and a Hawaiian shirt, and watch from afar to see if they could spot anything unusual happening. The zoo eventually began utilizing two spies at the once, as it was certain that Ken was recognizing its informants. This belief would be affirmed.

Less than an hour after being released from solidarity confinement on August 13th, Ken was spotted standing with a small crowbar. Uncover trainers figured that someone must have forgotten it during the last round of construction, and they were alarmed. What would Ken do with it? Should they clear the area just to be safe? Those worries were put to ease when the orangutan tossed the tool aside. Ken did not appear to be interested in it – although the trainers should have known better. As one noted expert warned, if a tool like a screwdriver is ever accidentally left in a cage, an orangutan will “notice it immediately but ignore it lest a keeper discover the mistake. That night, he’d use it to dismantle his cage and escape.” Strangely enough, the crowbar itself landed only feet from a fellow inmate, Vicki, but this was not of particular concern either. The keepers’ focus was on Ken, and they followed him as he meandered across the exhibit to the far side. Within minutes, a loud noise disturbed their concentration. Vicki had been hard at work in a secluded spot, attempting to pry open the molding between two glass panels. The glass cracked but held in place. “I’m having a lot of trouble staying one step ahead of this group,” the head trainer admitted afterwards. Some at the San Diego Zoo believed that the two orangutans were in on this escapade together with Ken supplying the distraction and Vicki the muscle. To err on the side of caution, administrators placed both animals into isolation.

It was not long after being released, now for the fourth time, that Ken made yet another attempt at escape. Only on this occasion, spies were finally able to catch him in the act. He was hip deep in the shallow end of the moat when he pressed his feet against one wall and his hands against other. Slowly, he inched his way up. The keepers were amazed for two reasons. First, orangutans are supposed to be scared to death of water. That’s why zoos use water-filled moats as a deterrent. Second, they had no idea that an orangutan could climb in that manner. Such feats, though, are not unheard of. At the Houston Zoo, for instance, Mango once escaped by pressing his fingers against a glass edge, toes against another nearby edge, and scaling his way upwards. “It’s incredible,” said the curator of primates. “There wasn’t even enough to grasp. It was all finger pressure.” Houston ordered an angled window. As for Ken, his trip was brought to an abrupt conclusion after he touched the newly installed electrified wires. The shock sent him running back into the exhibit, and the zoo was marginally pleased with itself. “We have discovered his way out,” a spokesman explained with a measured tone. “But once he realizes we’ve blocked that exit and turns his wits to the rest of the enclosure, we may wind up chasing him again.”

With the months ticking by, Ken seemed to quiet down. The structural modifications, in all appearances, must have been working, and San Diego breathed a sigh of relief. Everything had returned to normal. In April of 1987, this relative peace came to an end, as the orangutan was spotted outside of his exhibit. It seems that repairs were being performed on the moat’s water pump that particular day, and the orangutan used this opportunity to flee. Ken was just biding his time until the electricity was shut off. How he came to understand that fact, we do not know. Perhaps he was watching carefully. Or maybe he performed random checks on the wiring and just got lucky that day. Significantly, there was a similar case that occurred at the National Zoo in Washington DC. Keepers there discovered that one of their orangutans had learned to recognize the very slight buzzing noise given off by an electronic gate when it opened and closed. On those rare occasions when the door did malfunctioned, this animal would head straight for it and walk out. But for the San Diego zoo, its exhibit gate had remained lock. Moreover, the zoo did widen the moat after Ken’s last attempt. So even if the electrical wires were shut off and the orangutan noticed it, he still should not have been able to scale the wall. “It really surprised us,” a spokesman chirped. “We honestly felt that we had him contained.” Nonetheless, Ken had escaped and he was currently on the loose.

During the previous getaways, keepers were able to coax Ken back into his enclosure with little difficulty. A few bananas usually did the job. But this time, it was different. Ken had no interest in complying with anyone. He was on the run, and the zoo knew it. Facility personnel armed themselves with darts and live ammunition, and went in pursuit. They were, according the subsequent reports, prepared to shoot Ken if necessary. The guards at the San Diego Zoo are trained to do so. “If he were to have attacked somebody, we would have had to kill him because a tranquilizer takes time to take effect.” In the end, Ken chose to avoid using any means of violent resistance. Some orangutans, however, have gone in another direction.

Frank Buck had considerable experience in dealing with the red ape, as he was one of most prolific animal collectors in the modern era. It is with a combination of amazement and horror that one reads his travel journals, as the sheer numbers of animals which he killed and captured is staggering. Indeed, after scrolling through the writings of Buck, Carl Hagenbeck, Alfred Wallace, Henry Ward, and the rest of the 19th and 20th century collectors, one can argue with strong confidence that the natural history museum and zoological park have been a primary cause in the diminution and extinction of animal species on our planet. But back to Buck and orangutans. He would usually kill the mothers and take the children. Adults were too difficult to control – plus museums would buy their cadavers for taxidermy. The young ones were much easier to deal with, although there certainly could be problems. “Put your hand too close to the bars of these tree-dwellers that resents his captivity,” he warned others, “and there’s a good chance that you’ll get only part of it back; or, if you get it all back, it won’t be in working order.” Buck’s favorite method to discipline these apes was to use a crowbar, as a blow to the head was better than a gunshot to the body. The key was to bring them back alive, so that the animals could be sold in one piece.

Zoos, in fact, have very strict protocol when it comes to dealing with orangutans. All locks must be double checked, because the animals watch everything you do. Weapons must be kept nearby but must remain “OUT OF SIGHT of the animal.” Orangutans know what guns are, and they don’t like them. Employees must never cross the lines painted in front of the cages, because the orangutans will grab you. This is what happened at the Miami Metro Zoo in 2003, when a veterinarian got too close to Thelma. The 20-year old reached through the bars and pulled the employee’s arm in for a bite. Zoos must also practice yearly drills, preparing for the inevitability of escapes. Each facility must have a command center. Each must have warning codes. The color red means danger and all visitors must exit the zoo or be placed into secure positions. The color green means that an incident is taking place, but that the zoo will try to keep it confidential. When an escape does arise, a keeper must never engage the animal without assistance. Orangutans “may act VERY differently” when free. Furthermore, after the response team has been assembled, only those individuals that have “a positive relationship” with the animal should advance. Orangutans “may become dangerously aggressive if confronted by people whom they dislike.” Even with these precautions, attacks still do occur.

There was the case of Sara at the Gulf Breeze Zoo in Pensacola, Florida. She had fled from an unlocked cage in September of 2000 as it was being cleaned. A trainer tried to lure her back. “If she had seemed the slightest bit unsettled or crazy, I would never have approached,” the woman remembered. “But she was perfectly calm.” Despite this, Sara jumped on top of the trainer and bit her repeatedly. The orangutan evidently did not like the woman. “Sara was born in quarantine,” the head zoo administrator deadpanned, “and will remain in quarantine.”

More recently, there was the rampage at the Shaoshan Zoo in Taiwan. A local television station happened to be filming at the park that day and caught the entire incident on tape. An unidentified male orangutan was running loose. As he overturned motorbikes and smashed picnic tables, visitors screamed and hid inside of buildings. Police arrived, chased after the ape, and then were themselves chased by the ape. For two hours, the standoff continued. It would conclude with a shot to the chest by a stun gun. The zoo used a small bulldozer to move the orangutan’s unconscious body back to the cage.

As for Ken Allen in San Diego, his standoff may have concluded more peacefully but that did not mean he was happy about being captured. “He was very, very agitated and upset and wound up because this time it had been a real chase,” a keeper commented. It ended up taking the zoo over three hours to get the orangutan downstairs and into his basement holding cell. The struggle was considerable. At least the zoo could now rest easy in the knowledge that, if the electricity stayed on, Ken Allen should remain enclosed. But what San Diego did not count on was the fact that another orangutan was about to make her own brand of trouble.

In late August of 1987, Kumang made her first escape from the Heart of the Zoo exhibit. Visitors stumbled upon her and alerted officials. This 9-year old orangutan had been exploring the park for about half an hour. Unsure of how she fled, San Diego turned to professional rock-climbers for consultation. “The keepers don’t feel real secure; they think its just a matter of time before the orangutans get out again.” As the climbers inspected the walls looking for hidden crevices, each of the animals was tucked away in the basement. It was just better not to take any chances on them witnessing any of this activity – for in the battle of wits, the orangutans were clearly winning.

Eight months later, Kumang would make another successful escape. Only this instance, she had enlisted the help of her sister, Sara. Zoo keepers quickly discovered the orangutans’ means. It was a mop handle: a device which, in order to be used effectively, required cooperation between two participants. One of animals had to hold the stick in place while the other climbed. Organization and mutual aid are essential aspects in most animal cultures, including orangutans. Zoos, however, are places wherein that culture is restricted or even destroyed. This is done, whether intentionally or not, through the removal of autonomy, break up of the family unit, restriction on corporeal movement, continuous transfer of animals from one facility to next, and in the alternation of other living patterns. Psychologists would call this a process of alienation and institutionalization. Hence what we tend to see in zoos is a much more individualistic-based community, regardless of the species. Yet, cooperation and cooperative resistance can occur.

For example, in October of 1991, a mass escape took place at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. Here, five orangutans were able to slip through several security doors and scale a high wall. The response team initially tried to entice the group back to their enclosure with bananas. It did not work. Woodland then turned fire-hoses upon the orangutans. But this method failed too. The group, holding together as one, simply would not budge. It was only after each of the five was tranquilized that the altercation was brought to a close. “Our first relief was that we were able to dart the large male, Towan,” a general curator detailed. “He can be very dangerous. Ironically, we just recently had an emergency escape drill and the animal I chose was Towan.” The zoo was certain that he was the ringleader, and it needed to be extra careful with him from now on. This best way to accomplish this, administrators decided, was to purchase a brand new security system. Two years later, though, Towan would beat that system and broke out once more. We don’t know if he had help.

Then there was Siabu, Sara, and Busar at the Chaffee Zoo in Fresno, California. In 2004, they spent weeks, maybe months, unraveling a small section of the nylon netting that surrounded their enclosure. On October 14th, one of them was finally able to push his body through the hole and make it outside. “They’re very, very smart,” an official admitted. “They may have been hiding it from us what they’ve been working on.” All three animals were placed into special holding pens for the immediate future.

As for Kumang, she would escape two additional times from her San Diego exhibit. The first was on June 9th, when she was found sitting among the flowers in a nearby orchid garden. Refusing to be taken on her own accord, Kumang was shot with a tranquiller. Significantly, a trainer later commented that these orangutans know full well that, if they choose to escape, there will be severe consequences. “Good, bad or indifferent,” every action leads to a counteraction, and these creatures understand this. Kumang evidently believed that some risks were worth the taking.

The second escape happened the following day. Kumang was spotted standing outside of the douc langur monkey enclosure. When confronted, she climbed atop the bird sanctuary and awaited her captors’ response. They shot her with another dart. It was soon thereafter that the zoo uncovered Kumang’s method of escape. “She has learned how to ground the hot wire,” a trainer explained to the local reporters. “She’ll take sticks and pieces of wood and lean them up against the wire so that it is grounded. Then she pulls herself up by using the porcelain insulators on the wire as hand-holds.” “I’m not sure I would have been able to figure it out,” the employee finished.

Over the years, zoo orangutans have developed a variety of creative means to overcome technology and their captors. Some, like Kumang, figured out the basic principles of electricity, and thus have used a piece of wood or a rubber tire to ground wires. Others came to learn the engineering of locking mechanisms. The writer Eugene Linden explored two such orangutans in his book The Parrot’s Lament (1999). Fu Manchu at the Omaha Zoo would employ a thin piece of metal wiring, which he kept hidden in his mouth, to pick open his cage lock. Jonathan at the Topeka Zoo crafted a device out of a slab of cardboard in order to release himself through a complex guillotine door. Both of the animals would eventually be found out, but that did not diminish their accomplishments or their hope.

The San Diego Zoo, for its part, decided that the best way to deal with its own meddling orangutans was to put all of them into their basement holding cells until the exhibit could be completely redesigned. This time around, the facility was going to take an “aggressive” approach to the problem, and it budgeted $45,000 for the task. “The escapes have been a source of frustration for everybody involved,” a spokesman bristled. The orangutans had to be stopped. Construction began immediately.

For the next three months, the remodeling continued. The walls were made taller and smoother. Every corner was rounded. The current hot-wiring was ripped out and replaced with a more advanced system. New, stronger doors were installed. In the meanwhile, Kumang, Ken, and the others sat in their dank, underground quarters. One employee spoke candidly about the situation. “People might think this is horrible, but at zoos back East or in the Midwest, this is where their animals live all winter long. Every year. We’re real fortunate with our climate. It certainly is not ideal by any means, but it could be worse.”

In February of 1989, the exhibit was at long last completed. Administrators, though, took one more precaution before the animals were released. They paid a contractor to sweep the entire enclosure with a high-powered magnet. No way were these little red apes going to get their hands on anything of use. With that done, the grand opening took place. What a great day for the city of San Diego and its tourist trade, the zoo boasted. The orangutan exhibit was back in business. Yet, behind the scenes, confidence was not so high. “You never guarantee anything with these guys,” one person grumbled of the orangutans, “because their nature is very manipulative, very observant, hard workers.” “We won’t really know if it’s been successful from an escape standpoint until maybe two, three, four years down the road, until these guys have had time to scrutinize our repairs.” Indeed, four years later, an orangutan named Indah finished her examinations and escaped from the exhibit. It was back to the drawing board for the San Diego Zoo.

JASON HRIBAL is the co-author of The Cry of Nature: an Appeal for Mercy on Behalf of Persecuted Animals. He can be reached at: jasonchribal@yahoo.com





Jason Hribal is the author of Fear of the Animal Planet: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance (CounterPunch/AK Press).