Are Zoos Getting Any Better? Lessons From One Magnificent Orangutan

Wild Things
Slate’s animal blog.
May 9 2014 8:09 AM

A Magnificent Orangutan Experienced the Best and Worst of Zoos

kutai
The sight of Kutai would stop zoo visitors in their tracks.

Courtesy of Mimi d'Autremont

On January 4th, 2014, the world lost an orangutan.

To be fair, the world loses a lot of orangutans these days. They’re dying so quickly that experts expect at least one of the two species of orang to be extinct in the wild within the next 10 years. This specific orangutan, however, didn’t live in the wild. He was born in captivity and spent his entire life in a zoo.

Advertisement

Kutai, a Sumatran orangutan, weighed nearly 200 pounds, stood as tall as a man, and had hair the color of the Australian outback. When Kutai walked up to the glass, his face as large and round as a dinner plate, you felt equal parts respect for the splendor of this creature and a sudden sensation of fear, like maybe humans weren’t so tough after all.

During the 20 years of this orangutan’s life, zoos have transformed from arks for species conservation to institutions centered on research, education, and animal welfare.

But what is a zoo, really? For some, it's nothing more than a prison for animals. For others, it's a safe place for a family outing. For people who watched the public butchering of a giraffe in Denmark, zoos might push into the macabre. But the truth is zoos are much more than anything you see in a typical visit. Kutai’s experience reflects zoos’ metamorphosis and their changing role in society.

Kutai was born in 1993 at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Kansas. Shortly before his 8th birthday, he was transferred to Oregon, where he joined his grandmother, Inji, a wild-caught orang from a bygone era when animals were routinely captured in the wild and taken to zoos. For his first nine years at the Oregon Zoo, he lived in an indoor-only habitat in the outdated primate house. His dwelling had high ceilings and few windows; the walls were painted a medical green, and a wooden play structure stood relatively untouched in the middle of the room. Tony Vecchio, the zoo’s former director, called the primate exhibit the worst he had to face during his time at the zoo. Orangutans have complex physical, cognitive, and emotional requirements, and they need something more innovative and engaging. And Kutai was an especially tricky creature. “Kutai was not an animal you wanted to play chess with,” says Vecchio, “he was always thinking three moves ahead.”

This type of exhibit fuelled anti-zoo rhetoric among animal-rights activists as well as feelings of discomfort for many zoo visitors who worried that the animals were bored, unhappy, or otherwise not well cared for. Such housing made the animals easy for visitors to view and the living spaces easy for keepers to clean. But as people have learned more about the needs of animals, more naturalistic habitats have become the standard. The transition has been gradual, but soon concrete cages will be a distant memory.

Kutai’s keepers had to think of ways to engage the young orang and his companions, called environmental enrichment. As it turned out, the orangutans loved wearing clothes. Kutai and Inji would enthusiastically put on T-shirts and parade in front of squealing visitors. The orangs would react to boxes and hay, making nests near the window where they could comfortably watch zoo guests.

From 2000 until 2013, I worked at Kutai’s zoo, first as an overeager high school volunteer searching for community service hours and later as an overeager educator searching for ways to share my newfound passion for wildlife. As a camp counselor, I would bring groups of children to the exhibit. Often, Kutai would be crouched near the glass, his fiery fur pressed against the window. My campers could just barely wait their turn before rushing to occupy the prime real estate right in front of Kutai. At first, it was hard to keep them quiet while they quickly copied Kutai’s stance. But their boisterous excitement soon settled into a reverent hush.

In my first few years as a counselor, I would try to impart knowledge about orangs. Who knows what brachiation means? Have any of you ever heard of palm oil? But I soon learned that the greatest introduction I could give my students was not to teach them about the ways that orangs move, or even the details of threats these animals face in the wild, but to simply let them engage. They would pull up their nametags and press them to the glass. Almost involuntarily, one or two would reach out their hands. And once or twice, Kutai would reach his out in response.

This kind of experience is rare and precious. Most zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums are located in urban areas, places where access to wildlife is limited. And with exotic animals such as orangutans, the chance of an up-close encounter with a wild creature in its natural habitat is remote. While menageries were once built as playgrounds for the elite, modern zoos and aquariums give people the chance to see and connect with animals of all kinds from around the world. Even better, people see zoos and aquariums as being racially, socioeconomically, and politically neutral. Bleeding heart liberal? Come on in. Tea Party Republican? Zoos don’t judge. Give them your rich, your poor, your eager masses—the animals await.

In 2008, Kutai and Inji’s future changed dramatically. The zoo secured funding for Red Ape Reserve, a naturalistic habitat that would house orangutans with white-cheeked gibbons. In the wild, orangs and gibbons commonly share the same forest. Zoo employees were thrilled with the news. Primate habitats are notoriously difficult to engineer, given the complex physical and psychological requirements of the animals, and the zoo was poised to create something great. Ideas started flying: sway poles designed to look like bamboo, a tunnel dressed like a log where orangs could watch visitors enter the exhibit area.

Shortly before the animals were moved in, staff members were allowed to play in the new habitat. We climbed the giant ropes, explored the intricacies of the new area, and solidified our belief that this would indeed be an amazing new home for Inji and Kutai. The new habitat was lush with robust flora, a bubbling water feature, hills, and valleys. Perhaps the most stunning feature of the new habitat was a 40-foot-tall “enrichment tree” in its center. Inside the trunk was a spiral staircase and various openings where keepers could hide food for the orangs. Standing at the top of the enrichment tree, looking over the top of the zoo, I felt that things were improving.

Before I started working at the Oregon Zoo, I hadn’t exactly been a zoo enthusiast, but I hadn’t been a doubter either. I went to the zoo once a year with my family. It was fun—I saw the hippos, ate ice cream, posed for some photos. I vaguely considered that it might be great if all animals could live in wide open spaces, in harmony with humans. 

But even as a child I knew this wasn’t practical. In 8th grade, we went on a school field trip to the zoo where the assignment was to “redesign” an animal exhibit. This was the first time I ever remember thinking that here was the potential to provide better lives for animals and stronger connections between animals and people. The diorama of a bird exhibit that I built was a true work of art, but somehow the zoo didn’t immediately reconstruct the eagle habitat per my recommendation. But new zoo habitats were being constructed based on a very similar vision of welfare and education.

Kutai and Inji’s big day arrived in 2010. In front of excited staff, visitors, and media, the gibbons scampered, Inji explored. But perhaps the most stunning image of the day was Kutai, hanging from the mesh canopy, showing off his massive form like no one had seen before.

Life in the reserve was good. The animals were more active than ever. Kutai often climbed along the mesh, a sight that unfailingly stopped visitors in their tracks. When the crowd grew especially thick I would quicken my step to join them, because I knew that they were seeing something amazing. The new exhibit became a major educational tool. With eager teen volunteers serving as spokespeople, the zoo brought to light the environmental damage caused by palm oil farming and its severe consequences for animals like orangutans. In the past four years, orangutan populations dropped 14 percent due to habitat destruction from expanding plantations. Listening to these stories, visitors’ eyes would shift from the teens to Inji, sitting patiently in a nest of straw. Her presence brings these statistics—vague figures from a far-away land—to life.

I wish I could say that I had seen Kutai just before he died or that I had a poignant story about watching him draw his last breath. But I don’t. In reality, I was at a bar with two of my friends from the zoo. “Did you hear?” one of my friends asked carefully. “Kutai died yesterday.” I was shocked. I was saddened. I texted everyone I knew who might care and a few who probably didn’t. In our conversations about him over the next few days, my friends and I agreed on one thing: we were glad that he had lived such a good life.

Now I work as a consultant, helping zoos evaluate the impact that their programs and exhibits have on the way visitors think, feel, and act toward wildlife. In my more glamorous moments—the ones I spend not in front of a computer—I get to visit zoos across the country, seeing what’s new. On an icy day in December, I went to see the St. Louis Zoo’s new sea lion exhibit, where splashing animals moved easily from land to water. During a weekend spent in a tent at the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park, I watched the zoo break ground on a massive tiger habitat. And on a quiet day in central California, I thrilled over the Fresno-Chaffee Zoo’s blueprints for a new Africa exhibit that could double the size of the entire park.

The data I’ve collected indicate that zoos are moving our relationships with animals in a positive direction. To be sure, zoos are not perfect. There are still exhibits that are unsatisfying. Sometimes animals die and no one knows exactly why. But if you’ve ever gone to a zoo and had that uneasy feeling that you couldn’t quite place, you’re not alone. The people who work in zoos have that feeling too, and want nothing more than to improve the quality of every animal’s life to the highest possible standard. But zoos cannot take the necessary steps alone. The power of zoos lies in their ability to reach a number and diversity of people unsurpassed by any other educational outlet short of public schooling. Without the support of the people, moving forward with better habitats, field conservation, and educational programs becomes near impossible.

On May 5th, the zoo’s director and head veterinarian were fired. The city government, which runs the zoo, cited Kutai’s death as the primary motivation. The dismissals demonstrate that the pursuit for a high quality of animal care can be complex and zoos are constantly questioning their practices in a quest to improve. While Kutai’s death has sparked controversy, his life was replete with examples of the care and dedication that keepers, veterinarians, educators, scientists, and visitors give to animals at the zoo. But though Kutai was special, he was not unique. The next time you find yourself with an empty Sunday, scope out your local zoo or aquarium. Stay a little longer at a couple exhibits and watch, even after the crowd has dispersed. Find a keeper narrating a feeding session and chat with her afterward. Look at your visit with new eyes and ask, what are you zoo’s stories? Who is your Kutai? And what can you do to help?

Kathayoon Khalil is a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University and an evaluator for zoos, aquariums, and museums. Her favorite animals are elephants and naked mole rats.