International Orangutan Center in Indianapolis

A young orangutan climbs above the crowd at the Indianapolis Zoo

Can you say “orangutan”?  Chances are you can’t.  But, don’t feel bad – I wasn’t pronouncing it correctly either until I spent a day at the Indianapolis Zoo. Most of us say things like orang-uh-tang which is incorrect.  A science teacher actually complimented me at a party this Summer when he overheard me talking about the International Orangutan Center to some friends.  He walked over and told me how impressed he was that I knew what I was talking about.   Of course, you and I both know I have no idea what I’m talking about – I just happened to get lucky.

When I first took a tour of the International Orangutan Center they were just putting on the finishing touches of this sophisticated, state of the art and incredibly unique experiment.   It had yet to open to the public and I had more questions than answers.   I think it’s safe to say the staff at the Indianapolis Zoo may have had more questions than answers as well.  So many variables could make this a huge success or just another expensive zoo exhibit.

The idea was to provide a comfortable home for 8 orangutans – 4 males and 4 females – where they can interact with the public, as much or as little as they want.   None of the animals are forced to do anything.   The million dollar question would be – will they take interest in the humans on the other side of the glass and down below the ropes or will they ignore the humans – making the entire thing a total bust.

Years of design and study went into the creation of the center but animals don’t always follow the best laid plans.  Thankfully, at least most of the residents here do seem to enjoy, at least some interaction with the human onlookers.   The younger the orangutan, the more curious they are about what’s going on behind the glass.

Having seen one too many movies where animals escape from the zoo or a lab and set out to destroy the world – I was a bit leery when they told me the orangutans could climb freely, above the public with nothing holding them inside the exhibit except the fear of falling to the ground where they’d almost certainly die.  Of course, these are experienced climbers and in the wild it’s as natural to them as walking or eating.

During my second visit, seeing things in full swing – it was obvious the gamble paid off and the exhibit is a success.  Crowds gathered to get as close as they could to the glass where one of the middle aged orangutans stared back, almost as though posing for the cameras.   Outside, the youngest orangutan of the bunch climbed the rope around the center, knowing full well that dozens of people were watching the spectacle below.    The oldest orangutan of the group – plopped against the window, back to the crowd, asleep.   Maybe he’s just old enough to know that we humans are really not all that interesting.

The center also conducts ongoing research and allows orangutans to play computer games with humans on the other side of the glass.   One thing stressed over and over – the animals are free to do as much, or as little as they want.  The design of the facility provides them the opportunity to get away from guys like me snapping photographs or to hide from the other orangutans to get some peace and quiet.

There’s certainly nothing like it anywhere in the world and it’s a one of a kind, unique way to get up close and personal  to these interesting and likable characters.

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