A Remarkable Encounter with an Orangutan

During the late 1970s & early 1980s Dr Gary Shapiro taught America Sign Language (ASL) to some of the ex-captive juvenile orangutans at Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park. His star pupil was, beyond any doubt, Princess. The connection between Gary and Princess continues to run deep. Gary once said, as part of a sworn testimony no less, he had two children: his biological son in the US and an adopted orangutan daughter in Borneo. Princess & Percy

Princess and her baby Percy

Anyway, I digress. I have my own Princess story which I was reminded of today and thought I would share with you.

One afternoon, a couple of years ago, an assistant and I were leaving Camp Leakey walking down the jetty to where our boat was waiting. I was carrying a bottle of water. Ahead of us, Princess and Percy sat on the jetty. As we approached, they moved politely to one side. Princess then very obviously made a fist with her thumb extended, and raised the thumb to her lips; the ASL sign for drinking.

It was incredibly touching and remains one of my favourite orangutan memories. There was no doubt Princess was trying to communicate with me. What is more she was using a human language, not her own. That she could remember the language after so long only shows her remarkable intelligence. There was also sensitivity in her actions; if she had wanted the water she could have just taken it. In the twilight of a day, which was also the twilight of my thirties, an orangutan asked me for a drink of water, which I gave her, and I sat next to her as she drank it.

You can find out more about Gary’s work at Orangutan Republik