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...


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 and I will add it to the story.

1 comment:

Anita Walsh said...

I always enjoy your writing Shawn. Thanks again. It's spacious, un-pushy and affecting. It's good to know the sensitivity of animals... and people.