Monday, August 20, 2012

orangutan musing

orangutan musing by IntimateApe
orangutan musing, a photo by IntimateApe on Flickr.

I like to capture orangutans in a thoughtful pose to show that side of them. The black and white photo seems to highlight that contemplative aspect. This photo was taken at Nyaru Menteng.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Inside an orangutan sanctuary in Borneo: Nyaru Menteng and what makes it good

Sido and Happy enjoy each other's company at Nyaru Menteng, Kalimantan, Borneo
Maybe I'm too idealistic, but I like to look for sanctuaries in this troubled world, places that are safe and apart from the influence of the world and that let you heal and grow.

For the last seven days I have been in a place like that, at the Nyaru Menteng sanctuary for orphan orangutans near Palangkaraya, in Kalimantan, Borneo.

I am here as I start work on a new book about morality in apes and human beings, after leading a small eco-tour with my friend Gary Shapiro to see orangutans roaming freely at Camp Leakey, in Tanjung Puting national park in Kalimantan.

And I don't think I could be in a better place to observe morality in apes and humans than in a sanctuary like Nyaru Menteng, originally set up under the Borneo Orangutan Survival foundation by the visionary Danish angel Lone Droscher-Neilsen, whom I met here in 2004.

The current manager here, a 37-year-old Javanese man named Anton Nurcahyo, says that I am still in the honeymoon phase of being at Nyaru Menteng, but that is because he is too modest and practical (unlike me) about has accomplishments after two years here.

Having visited most of the orangutan centres, I can say that this one is well managed because of the joy I see in both the orangutans and the staff, which you don't see in the places where people and primates feel tension and pressure. The staff laugh and joke with each other and the orangutans approach them as companions would, unafraid.

Two-year-old Miko at Nyaru Menteng
Some mornings I go out in the jungle with Hani, the staff and a group of about 10 orangutans, for the orangutans to get some jungle time in the trees, which, for them, is the most interesting place to be. These orangutans are orphans who lost their mother because of human beings and need to learn how to function in the jungle. Nyaru Menteng has more than 600 orangutans, with a staff of 200, on 60 hectares of buildings, grounds and forest, plus some additional patches of land on a few islands and in other locations.

After the morning jungle romp, I return for the end-of-the-day meal and playtime from 3-5 p.m. Some of the orangutans still have some energy left from the trees and roll, stretch and play with their friends.

I spend the evening and sleep in a staff cabin where I have to dodge a vicious macaque on the narrow walkway over the swamp and watch for the renegade female orangutan who borrowed the cushions I put on the rattan couch on the deck. I am happy if I could make her life more comfortable.

I have to say that being here in Borneo with the orangutans I have forgotten about my other life -- except for my partner Wendy, of course, and my children, Pearce and Caitlin -- and it takes some effort to remind myself that I live in North American and have responsibilities there.

One day I was even drifting off in a hammock in the jungle with the orangutans, watching the sky and the trees for entertainment as they would, oblivious like the orangutans to the babble of Indonesian around me -- when the voice of Hani cut through asking, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING, MR?" "Thinking," I said, which seemed like what a writer and university professor should be doing. Since then, whenever anyone seems to be catnapping for a moment, it is called "thinking" in honour of me.

But that's the magic of a sanctuary too. It satisfies you and fulfills you and gives you the space to think unobstructed. Too many abstractions and theories can blind you. I think that being in places like Nyaru Menteng will help me understand in a practical way how we can establish a moral purpose that resists the destructiveness of the world and works to maintain a healthy community of people and apes.

There are so many different theories of what is good and moral, without agreement of what actually works, so Nyaru Menteng for me could be a living model of how these things can function.

I hope that Nyaru Menteng will last many years. I suspect it will seem much the same to me as today when the honeymoon is ended. At least, that's want we need to believe in a world like ours. We need to think that this place is possible, that, while it would be too idealistic to think that it is perfect, it still survives all the temptations of a difficult world with its basic integrity intact, that it deserves the name of "sanctuary."



Saturday, January 14, 2012

Psychology Today magazine, "mating" with an ape and how to dress your chimpanzee at the wedding


Funny or exploitative and misleading about apes? February 2012 issue

BY SHAWN THOMPSON

My favourite and sometimes provocative magazine Psychology Today has an eye-catching photo on the cover of its February 2012 issue showing a chimpanzee in a tuxedo with a woman in a wedding dress as her "mate."

The article is called "Are You With the Right Mate? What to do when you think it's all a mistake (and you will)"

As an older divorced primate with what I believe is now a promising second attempt at lifelong companionship, I am compelled to read this article and others, ones in the February issue like the cure for insomnia, thinking like a genius, how to keep your brain young -- all essential information for me.

The chimpanzee mate article is illustrated inside with a series of photos of a chimpanzee dressed in human clothes with his bride, with a final photo of them sharing a kiss. (Chimpanzees naturally kiss without having to be coaxed by human beings.)

There is a playful, humorous suggestion in the photos -- but not in the article itself -- that a male chimpanzee is almost akin to a human mate. One wonders what the children would be like.

But avoiding the temptation to see where the idea of a chimpanzee mate leads, is it right to dress an ape in human fashion?

Facebook profile photo that sparked outrage
I know that some of my Facebook primate friends would be appalled. In the last few days they have had a scorching debate about censoring a Facebook contact of ours who is using a monkey dressed in clothes as her profile photo.

The moral issue is a fascinating one.

The argument is that it is wrong to turn a fellow thinking and sentient being into an object of our pleasure. That is not only degrading, it validates their status as "pets" and helps to justify the abuse of the species.

The same type of thing was done years ago to women and non-Caucasians, in the days when male Caucasians had all the power and seemed destined always to have all the power.

Just in case you haven't heard, the reign of the white, male Caucasian has come to an end.

What was disturbing about the Facebook monkey photo feud was how quickly it descended into moralistic squabbling to pressure and punish anyone who didn't attack the offender.

But enough of social squabbles. What about the rights of apes?

Like all moral principles, particularly when they are promoted as absolutes, principles need to be scrutinized.

From Psychology Today magazine
We might say that it is absolutely and universally wrong to murder another human being, but then how is it right to fight wars, execute murderers, and kill terrorists? Are there some situations where murder is justified?

I would argue, by the way, that killing an ape is also murder, and I expect there would be fewer exceptions than there are for human beings.

But back to clothing and apes.

What if a chimpanzee decides of his own free will that he would like to wear a piece of clothing? Should we say that he does not have a choice, because we humans know better and have taken the right to make decisions for him?

But, someone will say, chimpanzees in the wild don't wear clothing. We want to keep them in a pristine state and wearing just your natural fur is part of that.

An interspecies kiss, in Psychology Today magazine
One answer might be another hypothetical test. Suppose you found a previously undiscovered tribe in the Amazon jungle. Should they be kept in a pristine and uncontaminated state without choice, against their will? Should they be given the choice if they want to learn from us and adopt some of what we have?

At what point do apes have basic rights and the freedom to make basic choices for themselves? How can we make all the choices for them?

Whatever the answer, whether Psychology Today magazine is bold for making a chimpanzee somewhat of a "mate" of a human being or reprehensible for a joke that makes an ape a plaything, our thinking about apes is far too sloppy.

The U.S.-based Psychology Today uses a chimpanzee human plaything on the cover at a time when the moral issue of using chimpanzees in medical experiments is being seriously debated in the U.S. Only two countries do this -- the U.S. and Gabon.

 Even with the best of motives we have done apes wrong.
__________________________________

Who is reading this blog entry? Where is the interest? In the first week of this blog item being posted on the web, here is a breakdown by country of the page views: United States 332, UK 99, Canada 85, Germany 24, France 20, Australia 19, Russia 19, Indonesia, 18, China 14, India 13.

____________________________________________________
(By the way, Psychology Today is still my favourite magazine (along with the Economist), despite our rocky history. I was invited to write an online column for Psychology Today magazine in 2010 , with the publication of my book about orangutans, but I was dismissed later that year for raising the issue of the magazine's treatment of online columnists. I also criticized the magazine for using a cover photo of a woman in a bikini that seemed more Cosmopolitan magazine than Psychology Today.)

The editor of my favourite primate psychology magazine:

 





Sunday, December 18, 2011

A meditation on apes, corporate greed, feelings of extinction, and the loss of literacy #OccupyBarnesAndNoble


by Shawn Thompson

It's terrible to contemplate the death of a species like the orangutan. 

I've been thinking of various ways to try to comprehend this unimaginable event. I imagine that extinction is a big death similar in some ways to the small death of the individual.

But what jolted me into thinking about this in a different way was the shock of strolling into my favourite Barnes and Noble bookstore in Seattle this weekend and discovering that the bookstore will come to an end on December 31, 2011. Good bye to the old year and hello to the new era!

As a book author writing about orangutans and someone concerned about literacy, a bookstore is my sacred space. In a bookstore I see the people like me who cherish the flow of the written word pass through the commercial arches.

Now the space in the fifth largest Barnes and Noble store in the United States, in the readership district of the hinterland of the University of Washington, shrinks day by day towards its demise at the end of the year, one book at a time, just as the forest of orangutans shrinks one tree at a time.

If we didn't have memories, we might not notice the change and just think that the size of the shrinking forest has always been the same.

Certainly corporations, whether book chains, mall owners or the companies converting the rain forest to palm oil plantations, must feel safe in the knowledge that people and orangutans feel powerless and simply adjust to change over time. The annoying sounds they make in protest will simply grow fainter and fainter.

I was talking to a frustrated and introverted employee of Barnes and Noble, with the word Graham on his name plate, and learning that he and the others were suddenly laid off, with one week's pay for each year of bookselling, his dedication to books and literacy eroded over the years by corporate insensitive and illiteracy. A customer came up while Graham and I were discussing  localized fate and change, and when I asked the customer how she felt about the store closing, she shrugged. It made her sad. "But there is nothing we can do," she said and seemed uncomfortable that I wanted to discuss the issue. She wanted to buy a book instead.

I had already told Graham that, as the author of a book about the looming extinction of orangutans, I am a great supporter of lost causes. Just because you think a cause is lost doesn't mean that you should stop the fight.

But the change is relentless. The death of books. The death of literacy. The death of a noble species of ape.

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF CHANCE ENCOUNTERS

In the case of the University Village mall in Seattle, Graham told me that the mall corporation wanted to raise the rent of Barnes and Noble while the bookstore had declining sales and was pruning its sales staff over the years in a corporate reflex action. The book business in general has declining sales of hard copy books and a surge of sales of ebooks that doesn't compensate for the difference. Which means that a book author like me is a species under pressure.

Graham, who studied literature in university and not the more relevant subject of corporate greed, also said that the mall wants to chop up the Barnes and Noble space into smaller stores to make more money, the same way land is subdivided for smaller house lots to make it worth more. The responsibility to literacy in a devoted community of readers around the university, in a city with one of the highest rates of book consumption  per capita in the United States, doesn't matter as much as making a buck. No surprise. That we know.

At the same time, in a mirror universe, the local University Village bookstore was also in the clutches of its corporate office in New York, which wouldn't let the local store support local writers, such as me as the author of a book about orangutans living several blocks away. When corporate headquarters decided it had sold enough of an orangutan book in Seattle, maybe less than a dozen copies, it was no longer interested in stocking them on the shelves. The importance of the cause underlying an orangutan book does not matter to the corporation. The fate of the orangutan does not matter to the palm oil plantation.

One of the issues I discussed with Graham was how often you discover by chance a new interest by browsing in a bookstore. An old statistic from ancient pre-web days said that 60 per cent of purchases in bookstores came from people who bought on impulse in a bookstore. With fewer bookstores, we will lose that. If a book chain does not take the responsibility to stock its shelves with books worth stumbling over, then that opportunity vanishes.

I bought several books on impulse after talking to Graham, although I regretted that it would be no benefit to him personally. I found a book by Jacques Derrida called The Animal That I Therefore Am, which I didn't know existed until I saw it on the shelf. Before that moment, I would not have known if it disappeared. The back of the book says, "The book is at once an affectionate look back over the multiple roles played by animals in Derrida's work and a profound philosophical investigation and critique of the relegation of animal life that takes place as a result of the distinction -- dating from Descartes -- between man as thinking animal and every other living species." The affectionate and the profound are what I want, plus relationships with unincorporated animals.

I also bought a cheap abridged paperback copy of Alexander Dumas's novel The Count of Monte Cristo, thinking it was somehow relevant to the experience of life and would help.

When I took the books to the checkout counter, the butch, overly tall woman at the cash register was being cheerful and said, "Would you like to purchase a Barnes and Noble membership?" I responded by reflex, in solidarity, by saying, "Why would I want to buy a membership in a company that is closing this bookstore and laying off people like you?"

IMAGINING EXTINCTION

The psychology of all this is similar to the rain forest and orangutans. The rain forest is like the space of the bookstore and the orangutan the individual literacy that inhabits it. Orangutans, after all, discover things, create their own culture and share what they learn with the group. That is basic rain forest literacy. Losing just one orangutan is like losing the information in a book. And it can't be replicated by a printing press.

Part of the genius of Jane Goodall is to recognize the importance of an individual ape in this way. She says in a collection called The Great Ape Project, "Each chimpanzee has a unique personality and each has his or her own individual life history ... And we find that individual chimpanzees can make a difference to the course of chimpanzee history, as is the case with humans."

That reminds me of what the science fiction writer Ray Bradbury called "the butterfly effect." Change one tiny element and it has a huge ripple effect accumulating and amplifying over a long period of time. The loss of the effect of the individual could be great over time.

So when we talk about the extinction of a species of ape we are talking about an abstraction and not the effect of the loss to the whole of the individual. Extinction is bad enough, but the loss of an individual can have a ripple effect. And you are never aware of what you have lost.

So the printed book is doomed. The rain forest is doomed. The orangutan is doomed.


How would an orangutan feel about a shrinking forest? Photo by Shawn Thompson
IMAGINING EXTINCTION

What does extinction feel like? Can we imagine something so big and terrible? 

I wonder if an orangutan would feel like me wandering around the shrinking space in my local bookstore habitat and feeling the palpable way that the absence is expanding, like a big godly thumb pressing down on my small squishy soul. It makes me feel the personal presence of it all. Maybe the Count of Monte Cristo could deal with the experience, but not me.

I was curious what sections of books would disappear first and what kind of strategy there was, probably mapped out by consultants for the corporation, to lessen the sense that books are disappearing. The westerns were gone first and a selection of  Science Fiction and children's books. Book shelves were removed to eliminate the traces that something was missing on the shelves.

I tried to imagine what this would be like for an orangutan. Every morning you wake up and a few more trees are gone. The sunlight is breaking through the edges of your forest more. The annoying mechanical and human sounds from outside are growing closer and muffled less by the buffer of trees.

In the bookstore, I felt myself herded to the sections of books that remained, a kind of unconscious adaptive strategy. The variety is shrinking. Some pleasures and interests are vanishing. I try to compensate by other pleasures and interests so that I won't notice and feel bad.

For an orangutan in the forest, the variety of fruit trees is shrinking. Maybe during the day you retreat more to the higher parts of a tree or to the shifting centre of the forest. At night, maybe you don't sleep as deeply. You dream of vague vanished pleasures and interests and when you wake up try to enjoy the fruit that remains. How conscious are you of missing fruit?

In the bookstore, as the number of books diminishes, so do the fellow book lovers. I am feeling more and more solitary. I am more aware of myself in an emptiness that is growing larger. I feel smaller but more important too.

For the orangutan, already solitary, the orangutans out in the trees that you once heard and saw from time to time are diminishing. There are more human beings invading the jungle. There are fewer social pleasures. Fewer dating opportunities. More compromises.

I think my mind had drifted a bit in the bookstore and then I felt that Graham had exhausted what he wanted to say. Maybe he felt embarrassed that he had revealled too much about his private pain.

I could see that Graham the crushed and introverted former idealist felt powerless, his world, his dreams, his ambitions, his small role in literacy, devastated. He had trouble looking me in the eye, but thanked me for listening patiently to his long tale and then shook my hand with the iron power one expects from a dock worker, not a distracted dispenser of books.


GOING HOME

I went home to tell my partner Wendy the disaster. The best thing about our location in Seattle is being close to a huge literacy space and the abundance of urban trees. Our street is noisy with traffic, which I don't like.

Wendy understood right away and gave me a big hug and then told me the other disastrous news. Our 14-year-old dog Emo had consumed five chocolate bars he found cached in a bedroom, which could send his already fluttery heart into death throes. It's what I call the chocolate "flush." Very healthy. No need to go into details.

So it was not a good moment as I sat down in a white heat to write this account.

Maybe this is akin to what it is like to feel the green and fluid wave of corporate greed sweep over a forest and a species.

In losing orangutans, we are losing a kind of literacy, a kind of literate space. I feel another dimension of that now. I feel the handshake from an individual orangutan saying goodbye.

On December 31, 2011, at the arbitrary afternoon hour of 1 p.m., I will spend an hour by myself in the Barnes and Noble bookstore in the University Village mall in Seattle meditating in one of their upholstered chairs on the death of species and literate spaces and how powerless we feel. Orangutans and the rain forest will be in my mind. Then I will go home to Wendy and the dog and eat Chinese vegetarian dumplings. 

                                                                      


Background information: The University Village mall in Seattle is owned by Sloan Capital, which is owned by Seattle sixty-something businessman Stuart M. Sloan, who has dabbled in grocery stores and a vineyard in California.

The Christmas card I sent this year to mall owner Stuart Sloan with a Christmas wish.
 
 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

orangutans in crisis: a worldwide interactive video forum on the web for Nov. 12, 2011


Orangutans in Crisis

Alive, open, worldwide interactive video forum on the Internet for one hour

Come join us for an exciting new initiative that lets an audience on the Internet interact live with speakers.

Questions for consideration: What is the situation inside Indonesia now politically and socially in terms of protecting orangutans and the rain forest? What is being done to spread the word? What could we be doing? What is the current status of orangutans?

Listen to speakers, ask questions, give your own point of view by voice or instant messaging.
Saturday, Nov 12, 2011 for one hour only (for those in North America, Europe and Africa; Sunday, Nov. 13 in Australia and Southeast Asia)

Starting times around the world: 5 p.m. Saturday eastern time (U.S.); 4 p.m. Saturday central time (U.S.); 3 p.m. Saturday mountain time (U.S.); 2 p.m. Saturday Pacific time (U.S.); 6 p.m. Saturday Brasilia, Brazil;10 p.m. Saturday London, England; 11 p.m. Saturday Barcelona, Spain; 11 p.m. Saturday Berlin, Germany; 11 p.m. Saturday Cape Town, South Africa; 12 a.m. Sunday Helsinki, Finland; 2 a.m. Sunday New Delhi, India; 4 a.m. Sunday Jakarta, Indonesia; 5 a.m. Sunday Perth, Australia; 5 a.m. Sunday Singapore; 5 a.m. Sunday Shanghai, China; 5 a.m. Sunday Beijing, China; 5 a.m. Sunday Singapore; 8 a.m. Sunday Sydney, Australia. 

Join the speakers, Gary Shapiro, an orangutan scientist and the president of the Orang Utan Republik, just back from Indonesia; Leif Cocks, head of the Australian Orangutan Project; and Hardi Baktiantoro, an orangutan campaigner and the head of Centre for Orangutan Protection in Indonesia.

moderator: Shawn Thompson, author of The Intimate Ape: Orangutans and the Secret Life of an Endangered Species

Part of the purpose of this forum is to foster a community of people communicating with each around the world to work together to save orangutans. This will be the first interactive video web forum in this series at www.bigmarker.com. Ideas for future broadcasts include hearing from leading ape scientists, conservationists and campaigners, like Marc Ancrenaz in Borneo, live video tours of different ape sanctuaries around the world, and a special session on musicians, music and apes. Other forums can be organized on topics of your choice.

You can reach the moderator and organizer Shawn Thompson at www.bigmarker.com/orangutan or intimateape@hotmail.com

The Orang Utan Republik is a non-profit organization working at the grass-roots level in Indonesia to create an awareness within the country about orangutans. 

The Australian Orangutan Project is a non-profit organization headed by Leif Cocks that raises money for its own projects and many other projects such as: Nyaru Menteng, Orangutan Care and Quarantine Centre, PanEco, Sumatran Orangutan Society, Frankfurt Zoological Society, Orang Utan Republik, Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Program, International Animal Rescue, and Centre for Orangutan Protection. For more information on these projects visit www.orangutan.org.au

The Centre for Orangutan Protection is "a direct-action group of Indonesian people who campaign to bring an urgent end to the destruction of our rain forests and the killing of orangutans." For information see http://www.orangutanprotection.com

To join the video forum, go to www.bigmarker.com and create an account to log in. The conference is at www.bigmarker.com/orangutan/crisis. Please use your real name and location when you log in so that the moderator and the audience can identify you. Unidentified speakers can listen, but will not be allowed to speak, in the interests of transparency and accountability. Those who log in will be also be able to comment and ask questions through instant messaging visible to the whole group. Once you have logged in, find "Orangutans in Crisis." The controls are easy. If you want to ask a question or speak during the forum, click the hand button for the moderator to see and manage the speakers from the audience in order. You will need a web cam and a microphone on your computer to speak. You can also send a private text message to the moderator during the discussion. If you wish, you can join the Orangutan Club International at www.bigmarker.com/orangutan to help with these interactive web forums and with publicity for orangutans and other apes.

Friday, September 16, 2011

let the season begin (insert accordian solo here).

My morning run & Belle and Sebastian's I'm a Cuckoo were interrupted by a brief phone call from one of my favorite girlfriends, who I call Mama Fox (she some-of-the-times refers to me as the Runaway Bunny & other times Peter Pan). I used the opportunity to stretch and cool down when a box labeled POETRY hanging from a wrought iron gate caught my eye. I peeked inside as I confirmed plans on the phone & pulled out an atomic green sheet of paper w/ not one but TWO poems (!!) printed in black. While saying goodbye to the other end of the line I folded up the pen-to-paper tangos, and then bolted down E Aloha (imagining that I was not running, but rather swinging through lush canopy formed by the trees on either side of the street-- these are the thoughts that keep my feet moving when I am tired from the previous mileage).

The last stanza of the second poem (both written by a man called Gary Snyder), read:

I pledge allegience to the soil 
of Turtle Island
and to the beings who thereon dwell
one ecosystem
in diversity
under the sun
With joyful interpenetration for all.


The first two lines of the piece, entitled For All, are "Ah to be alive/ on a mid-September morn". The sentiment is so relevant-- one I felt as my lungs filled with crisp almost-autumn air and then again with ev'ry exhalation... and one I felt yesterday while I visited Towan & he came over to the glass to show me his chalk drawing. My heart beats a little quicker when I share a moment like this with him. Mostly because he makes me feel like I'm not the only ape that is excited to share little bits of beauty w/ people nearby. That feeling of sameness is one of the more reassuring I've ever felt. I suppose I owe Mr. T and Gary Snyder a v.v. big Thank You! for providing reminders of why this mid-September is an especially lovely time to be living here in the now. 


The last day that I felt compelled to write, it was because of a person I met who invites adventure into his life, who sees magic in the tiniest places. When we are together strangers approach us for conversation & he is always ready to engage a new face in the Latest&Greatest. He is willing to allow a ten minute walk to take an hour, because he understands that sometimes one must stop and absorb ev'ry detail of this bustling world (& that takes time, takes patience). He doesn't mind that when I see a dead bumblebee on the sidewalk I have to pick it up and place it in a garden to rest in peace; he doesn't mind that when I see a piece of neat graffiti that I am compelled to photograph it and ponder the source; and most of all, he doesn't mind that inevitably at some point during our daily excursions I mention that I wish Towan could see ALL the things I see because I know with all my heart he'd feel so inspired and just as in awe of how strangely golden the world is (and his reactions would no doubt fuel his art).



Interpenetration is a word I had not known before reading it in Snyder's poem, but it is now one of my favorites. To wish for those around you to experience the visceral joy of being one with their environment and to take the time to be a part of whatever surrounds them is laudable. I have nothing but respect for the people & creatures who facilitate and encourage that experience. Towan lives at the zoo, which means he is limited to what shows up at his door-step, but! he never seems to miss a chance to investigate a novel garment or an interesting visage.


Perhaps, it is his ability to appreciate the little things that allows him to deal with annoyances so stoically. After showing me his art, he settled down to work on it some more. Bela followed him and made a grab for one of his two pieces of chalk. While her second attempt was successful, Towan did not seem to acknowledge her trespass. His tolerance is admirable, but then again he has so many traits that I admire and try to cultivate in my own self-- he is a Bodhisattva if there ever was one. 

--Emma (coffee with Towan)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Use of apes in entertainment & ads can harm conservation efforts

Regular readers of this blog don’t need to be told how wrong it is to use great apes in advertisements or farcical videos (especially “discovering” an orangutan’s attachment to a certain dog, for instance), or in shows. We know that taking young apes from their mothers is bad for them. We know that training apes to perform unnatural acts is wrong. We know that putting entertainment apes under lights, under stressful conditions, is inhumane. But now, thanks to research conducted by Lincoln Park Zoo’s Steve Ross, we know something more.

We now have evidence that using chimpanzees (and orangutans as well, most likely) in advertisements and entertainment can play a huge role in the public misconceptions about the endangerment of great apes in the wild. 

Ross’ newly published study, Specific Image Characteristics Influence Attitudes about Chimpanzee Conservation and Use as Pets, found that people seeing a photograph of a chimpanzee with a human standing nearby were 35.5% more likely to consider wild populations to be stable/healthy, compared to those seeing the exact same picture without a human. Wow, that’s a lot of misconception. A 10% swing in perceptions would be substantial, 20% is big, but 35% is huge!

Wild populations are not stable, nor are they healthy. In fact, chimpanzees have been classified as endangered since 1996.

Please take a few minutes to read the report Specific Image Characteristics Influence Attitudes about Chimpanzee Conservation and Use as Pets, just published in Plos One. Share the article, and help spread the word: Stop using great apes in entertainment and advertising.

-- Dawn @ Chimp Trainer's Daughter

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Project Nim: humans make and break connections with a chimp

I saw a movie today that is surely heads and shoulders above any other documentary this year. In my Chimp Trainer's Daughter blog, I review Project Nim, a movie that will be released in July. I cannot speak any plainer... Any person who respects great apes, and who wants to understand them, simply must see this movie. If you want to understand the human betrayal of great apes, you have no choice but to see Project Nim.
I remember the first time I held a chimp’s hand. The first touch between human and ape fingers establishes a connection, and you never forget the soft leathery feel of a chimp’s palm. What should be an ordinary sensation is not. It is unforgettable and forever.
The problem arises when the chimp-human connection becomes subject to human arrogance, sometimes cloaked in love, other times defined by science, and often supported by stupidity.
Project Nim is the true story of a chimp who was taken from his mother to participate in a 1970s university research project on communications. The movie has all three components: love, science, and stupidity, all adding up to a level of human arrogance that is almost incomprehensible.
Mark your calendars now, for Project Nim. You won't regret it.
-- Dawn

Friday, June 10, 2011

Reflections on the compassion of one orangutan in captivity rescuing a bird from drowning

VIDEO: An orangutan saves a drowning bird...

BY SHAWN THOMPSON

An intriguing few minutes of video has been circulating on the Internet lately of an orangutan in in Dudley Zoo in the U.K. inspecting and then lifting out of the water a small fledgling bird that is trapped.

It is intriguing because of the gentle care and compassion of the orangutan, named Jorong, and what that says about the beast that we as human beings have been so slow to understand.

Jorong was born in captivity at the Chester Zoo in Britain in 1995, of Borneo ancestry, was moved to the Dublin Zoo in 1996 for 12 years, and then to the Dudley Zoo in 2008. In the Dublin Zoo he fathered a female orangutan named Mujur. A spokesperson for the zoo told the Irish Times that he "was always a little inquisitive and very gentle."

In the video you can see how intent and curious Jorong is. He watches the moorehen chick, a bit slyly at first, then picks a leaf and uses the leaf as a tool to gently touch and test the small creature.

This is very unlike the kind of play with a small bird that you find in a cat, before it tears the creature apart and eats it.

It is a very tender curiosity.

Then, in a very moving moment, Jorong gently lifts the bird out of the prison of the moat around the orangutan enclosure in the zoo and sets it free on the land. The orangutan continues to examine the bird, with a sense of respect and compassion.

In the background are the sounds of school children at the zoo laughing with joy and innocence, conscious of the orangutan, who pays them no heed because he is so absorbed.

I had the odd thought that in watching the orangutan I was watching myself, watching humanity -- and I am not sure what that means. But there was a sense of grace and nobility in the long slow fingers, so big and yet not used in this instance for the power they contained.

I have to ask myself whether I am reading too much into this incident. There is definitely curiosity here. But is there compassion, or would I just like to think there is?

Idealizing orangutans does no more good than minimalizing them as "mere" animals.

But the primatologist Frans de Waal comes to my rescue because he makes a convincing argument that there is evidence of selflessness and altruism in the apes, or of empathy, which can be seen as the basis of morality. (But, like we human beings, we have to remember that intelligence and empathy vary from individual to individual, in both human and ape.)

Since we human beings are primates, part of the old ape family tree, we would share this inborn potential for empathy with the apes, and it would explain how morality evolved in us, as a living and natural behaviour before there was a need to rationalize ethics or turn it into a religion.

When I watch the video of the orangutan and the bird I feel like I am witnessing a secular religious moment, just natural compassion itself, without dogma and the need for a deity.

It feels like I am watching a miracle take place and there is no need to idealize it or make it bigger than it is.

It is like watching the Christian saint Francis of Assisi caring for the beasts. He does it because he cares, not because he wants tenure  in a university or sainthood some day.

My partner Wendy reminded me today, when we were discussing ethics and the behaviour of people that when we drink water, we should ask the source of the water, to show respect and gratitude for quenching our thirst.

I think the video of the orangutan and the bird quenches my thirst for today. I am grateful to the orangutan and wonder what the source of compassion is in him and what the source of this feeling is in me.

It feels like a better world if one orangutan born in captivity in a zoo and living there all his existence still has life within him and the potential for compassion.


Source of the video: As with things on the Internet that spread quickly, it is difficult to find information about this video. If anyone knows more, please email me at intimateape@hotmail.com. and I will add it to the story.