Sunday, February 6, 2011

Same social rules, different species: How to apologize to an orangutan

Orangutans need an apology too.
Photo by Shawn Thompson
One day, in the rare mid-April sun of drizzly, seaside Seattle I was watching orangutans at the zoo communicate.

It was a good day because the orangutans, each in their own way, in their own time, were letting the keeper Andy Antilla know that his apology was accepted.

Orangutans remind us of rudimentary courtesy, justice and moral behavior. If we forget, it damages the relationship with them, as it would with us.

They remind us of how much thought, understanding and communication is possible without words - something that our big brains stuffed with words have trouble grasping. Most of us cannot imagine who we would be if we couldn't write and speak.

They remind us that working with thinking, sentient beings creates a bond and, with a bond, comes responsibility.

I was pondering all this while watching the 310-pound, dominant male orangutan Towan extend a lower lip, as though pouting, to the keeper Andy Antilla to be touched and caressed, as if to say, "Andy, you are forgiven. Apology accepted. Now let's eat."

A few days before, the normally stoic Towan had stuck his huge fingers gingerly through some mesh towards Antilla. Now he was going farther and inviting the human to interact with him again.

Six years ago Andy Antilla wept when he left the Seattle zoo for the Great Ape Trust in Iowa. His emotion at that moment surprised even him. He had been with this ragtag band of shaggy red apes in Seattle for seven years.

The apes had come to trust him and now he was leaving them and breaking that trust for no reason that he could make clear to them. It was the kind of absence that is felt as betrayal.

Andy would miss them too. He wept - but not where they could see him. "I didn't want to make them upset," he told me. "I just told them goodbye, that I would hopefully see them again."

He wouldn't be able to explain tears that they would see as pain and sorrow. Orangutans feel sadness and anxiety just like humans and may also feel regret and a sense of loss. Antilla says that the bond he feels with an orangutan is like being in an extended family. He is uncle Andy.

Human beings and orangutans become bonded with the same kind of social rules. But orangutans have a different sense of time and absence than we do. They lived dispersed in the rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra so that the forest can provide enough food. They don't have the close social groups that gorillas and chimpanzees do, nor the same intricate social rules that go with that.

So an orangutan can resume a relationship after an absence of months as though there has been no break. One time Antilla was gone seven months and the orangutans behaved as though he was never gone.
But there comes a point where absence becomes a betrayal. If you want the relationship to continue, there is a penalty to suffer, amends to make. That's the way relationships are.

One form of the penalty and testing is recognizing the legitimate ill temper from the sense of betrayal and enduring it.

After that, an apology is required, depending on the length of time of the offence, the degree of the relationship and the individual preferences of the individuals involved.

So, on the eighth day that Andy Antilla had returned to the orangutans at the Woodland Park Zoo, I watched the process of reconciliation between man and ape. It was the first day that Antilla was doing the lunch feeding by himself again. He was a person of authority once more, but someone who also needed to win willing cooperation to do his duties. He knew that. The orangutans knew that. Nobody had to say it.

Since Towan was the dominant male, Andy needed to deal with him first out of respect for Towan's position, and now I saw Towan giving Antilla his blessing. Towan cares for his fellow orangutans too. One time he grabbed the fingers of a female orangutan to show Antilla that they were injured and needed treatment
Towan's twin sister Chinta got goose bumps when she first saw Antilla again, realizing with a start that he had been gone. She wouldn't look at him at first. She is usually a calm and forgiving orangutan who thinks and acts quickly and knows when she trusts someone. But Chinta can hold a grudge too.

Chinta gets over things much quicker than Towan. It is just her way. After all, she is an individual.

"Time is the apology," Antilla told me, and his fellow keeper Libby Lawson added, "Time is our friend. They see the steadfastness of the relationship."

It felt good to watch this happening and to know that it was happening. It felt for a moment that there was harmony in the universe.

It makes you smarter some times to be able to do these things without words. And, if you can do it with a glance and a gesture, you are also admitting the deepness of the relationship, the sincerity of what you feel.

That is the way it is with orangutan and the way it has worked for longer than we could know.


Check out my orangutan music video with J.P. Taylor: 

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