Orangutans are incredible primates, they are highly social, emotional, and intelligent. Amazingly, orangutans share 97 percent of the same DNA as humans. Sadly, despite the genetic and social similarities that we might share with orangutans, some people insist on keeping these beautiful creatures held in captivity.
One orangutan, captive at the St. Louis Zoo, is taking matters into her own hands. The 12-year-old female orangutan named Rubih took rocks and repeatedly tapped and banged them against four, seven-foot-tall windows for several months. The damage has cost the zoo nearly $200,000 in repairs, forcing them to temporarily close the exhibit down. The St. Louis Zoo’s ape care team taught Rubih to bring them rocks in exchange for treats. But she started banging on the windows with rocks when zookeepers weren’t around, presumably to get someone’s attention for a treat. Rubih got innovative and also dug up cement from the base of a tree to use to bang on the windows. In the wild, orangutans have been known to use tools, such as fashioning umbrellas out of leaves and digging for food with straws, so this behavior is not all that surprising. It is, however, deeply saddening. Rubih has the intelligence to create tools to achieve her goal – whether it be to get treats or perhaps even get out of her enclosure – but the nature of her captivity has prevented her from expressing this to her full potential. While we can not speak to this orangutan’s intentions in breaking her enclosure’s windows, it does bring an important question to mind: Why is she being denied her freedom?
Zoos are anything but fun for animals. Many of the animals that end up in zoos were born in the wild and captured at a young age while others were born into a captive life. In either case, these animals maintain their natural instincts and behaviors, both of which are stunted by life in a cage. In the wild, orangutans live in complex family groups that mirror our own very closely. Children stay with their mothers until they reach their teen years and they learn everything they need to survive from others around them. These animals live in this forests and spend the bulk of their days interacting with one another, exploring, and foraging for food. In captivity, orangutans are kept with a few other individuals if they’re lucky. Instead of trees, they get cement enclosures and fake tree-like structures. This understandably causes great distress to these dynamic animals. There have been many documented instances of animals exhibiting stereotypic behaviors, which are thought to be outward expressions of deep mental stress. These abnormal, repetitive behaviors include rockign from side to side, lashing out in an unpredictable manner, or deliberately injuring themselves – all are almost never witnessed in their wild counterparts. For animals that are so similar to humans, it’s heartbreaking to know they are subjected to this life all for our entertainment.
Orangutans have the right, just like all animals, to live freely in their native home – just as much as humans do. We can all help animals lead the lives they deserve by boycotting zoos and other facilities that hold animals captive. When the buying stops, so can the suffering.
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