Primate Behavior

Brookfield Zoo’s Tropic World exhibit is housed in a huge building, sort of like a zeppelin hanger, built in 1982-84. It was then the largest indoor zoo exhibit in the world. Unfortunately the French architect failed to include skylights; hence, no plants would grow inside, and hence its nickname among the staff, “Tragic World.”

In 1993 the Zoo decided to add skylights on the north slopes of the roof and the center flat section. But the work had to be done 70 feet above the floor. They came up with a novel solution: hang the aluminum platforms of the construction scaffolding from the ceiling, essentially, upside down. In 1994 they hired me to paint murals in the three big rooms portraying South America, Asia and Africa. This meant I had to use swing stages, long narrow platforms suspended from cables that could move up and down the walls, the same equipment used by window washers on high-rises. Because the stages couldn’t shift from side to side, I had to have three of them to span the end walls and regular scaffolding along the low back walls.

It was a monstrous job. At one point I knocked the drive unit of my spray gun off the swing stage. I didn’t realize it until I saw the hose whip across the platform and over the edge. I looked down and watched it fall 60 feet to the concrete floor, where it shattered into tiny pieces, followed a millisecond later by a loud bang and an echo. I realized if I wasn’t careful I would have a long time to review my life before I went splat.

In the middle of the building was a holding area for the animals when they were off-exhibit. The room was lined with cages for the animals and had a central island with sinks for food prep where I could clean up my spray guns and brushes. One of the keepers introduced me to a new mother, Sophie, a Borneo orangutan, and her son, Kutai, who it turned out was almost exactly the age of my daughter, Niki. The two shared a lot of behaviors, the paramount one being pulling Mom’s hair while nursing.

Sophie had her own interesting behaviors. When the keepers weren’t looking, she would slide over to her water spigot, get a large mouthful of water and squirt a stream directly at my head. To defend myself I simply moved to the other side of the food prep island where my head was protected by a pair of shelves. I quickly discovered that her accuracy was so great that she could fire a bolt of water between the bars of her cell and between the shelves and hit me right in the face. Not only that, she could get four or five shots out of one mouthful. I tried counter-offense when the keepers weren’t looking, but I was only good for one shot, like a musket, before reloading, and my accuracy was pitiful. But she enjoyed the contest and would grin whenever I came in to clean up. When the keepers caught me spitting water at her, they told me not to encourage any further behavior like that, and they pulled a plastic shower curtain across the front of her cage. I was disappointed but also relieved because Kutai appeared to be increasingly alarmed at the sight of combat.

Sophia the orangutan at Brookfield Zoo

Two years later, in 1996, I was walking with some out-of-town relatives through the Asian Room showing off my murals. On a rocky outcrop at the far end of the room, the colony of orangs were lolling about. Sophie had never seen me out of my paint clothes or in any other environment than her holding area, so I can only guess that she recognized my voice.

I took everyone up to the rail and said, “One of these orangs is named Sophie, and she has a baby named Kutai, who should be about Niki’s age, but I can’t really tell ’em apart.”

At that point one of the adult orangs stood up and shuffled over to a small adolescent-sized orang, lifted him in the air, facing me, and waved him back and forth. I was astonished.

I said, “That must be Sophie. How could she remember me?”

A thought struck me. I picked up Niki, waved her back and forth over my head while everyone laughed, and sat her back down. Sophie appeared satisfied, sat Kutai down and went back to feeding.

Years later, I learned her full name was Sophia, and she was the first orang in captivity to have to be taught by humans how to be a mom, since her own mother had died. Judging by her offspring, I’d say the training was a big success. She learned how to be a mom from humans, and I learned how similar primate behavior is.

So I wasn’t surprised, a year later, at what happened when a four-year-old boy fell into the gorilla pit in the next room. A new mother gorilla named Binti Jua fended off the males, picked up the boy, and brought him, unconscious, to the keeper door.  The boy’s identity has been kept secret, but Binti Jua became nationally famous. I think the incident taught many other people the same lesson I learned from Sophia.

Photo of Sophie linked from the Chicago Zoological Society website.