The Heavy Petting Issue: Distant relatives

click to enlarge Josie and GoJo at the zoo. - leslie joy ickowitz
leslie joy ickowitz
Josie and GoJo at the zoo.


We stepped off of our klotok in Borneo (the boat gets its name from the sound it makes traversing the Sekonyer River) and ventured into the forest in search of wild orangutans. Into the jungle we trekked until we arrived at a wooden platform piled high with bananas and listened to rangers make orangutan calls, hoping to catch our first glimpse.

We waited. And waited. And sweated profusely. And waited. And then… the rustling of leaves and the snap of a branch caught our attention. A bright spot of orange flashed by and a tree slowwwwwly bent. A hand! Then, the entire ape swung into view. It was Gundul — the alpha male.

Meanwhile, 10,183 miles away, a baby Bornean orangutan was born at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. GoJo is his name.

More on him in a minute; back to the jungle.

Not long after the initial sighting, our attention darted around as other orangutans arrived from every direction — females, adolescent males, mamas and babies. I can’t get over their different personalities and the expressions on their faces — curious, aloof, thoughtful, calculating, funny and intelligent. And their hands have a hold on my memories.

“Orangutan” means “person of the forest.” Humans share 96.7 percent DNA with them. Some of the orangutans in Borneo have names — Roger, Percy, Carlos and Siswe — because they were at one time either sick, injured or abandoned but were rescued, and later released back into the wild. Today, they are critically endangered due to palm oil industry deforestation and the illegal pet trade. Wild orangutans only exist in Borneo and nearby Sumatra. Their numbers are plummeting, but on each of our three stops to find them, we were fortunate to make their acquaintance.

Then I returned home and got to welcome baby GoJo to the neighborhood. GoJo, who’s named for mama Josie and papa Goyang, came into the world the hard way, which is to say, breech. I hear Josie, mother of four, was cool as a cucumber, helping GoJo along by literally reaching down and pulling him out of her body. Kurplunk.

On the day I visited, Josie took baby GoJo’s hand and gave it a kiss. Then she kissed his tiny foot. She was evidently proud to show off her new baby.

Amy Blackford, Lowry Park Zoo’s animal care supervisor of primates, has worked with orangutans for 10 years. She’s constantly impressed by their intelligence and “tool use.”

“They are always thinking and like to take things apart and put them back together,” she says, pointing at the exhibit. “DeeDee makes swag — bracelets and necklaces.”

Blackford has dire concerns over the palm oil crisis and its effect on the wild orangutan population. She hopes people will shop responsibly. Learn how you can help through Orangutan Outreach and the Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF).

As for her work with orangutans at the zoo, “Every day just surprises me,” she says. 

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