Looking for the invisible ape

I wrote the book The Intimate Ape: Orangutans and the Secret Life of a Vanishing Species because I thought the orangutan is also the invisible ape. The "secret life" is part of that invisibility.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that there is a huge cultural blind spot about this thinking, sentient being who is part of our evolutionary family tree.

Most people have a sense of gorillas and chimpanzees from popular culture, but they don’t know orangutans and they don’t know that orangutans are closer to extinction than gorillas and chimpanzees.

I was getting close to turning 50 at the time, when I started in the year 2000, and thinking about the value of my life and what I was accomplishing, as a person, as a writer.

Despite the cover, about Galdikas
What got my attention initially was controversy. Isn't that how it always is with human beings, what gets our attention? Orangutans aren't controversial in a way we commonly recognize, but people are, and I stumbled across the devastating article that Linda Spalding, the partner of the Canadian novelist Michael Ondaajte, wrote about the orangutan primatologist Birute Galdikas for Outside magazine in 1998, followed by an equally harsh book. I wondered how Spalding could write the article without getting sued for libel. The article made me interested about Galdikas and orangutans, and mainly about orangutans. 

So, over ten years, I went to Borneo and Sumatra, tracked down most of the leading orangutan scientists, talked to orangutan keepers in zoos in Australia, Jakarta, the Netherlands, Spain and the U.S.

Finding myself in the East... Photo by Wendy
The orangutan is also the only Asian great ape, and very different from chimpanzees gorillas and bonobos. The trips to Southeast Asia, to the Spice Islands, to Borneo and Sumatra and other places along the way, also awakened my dormant fascination in Southeast Asia, a part of the world that is hard for westerners to understand, and which has been avoided to some extent in western consciousness. That, I think, is partly the reason for orangutans being "invisible" to us and "inscrutable" too. We don't want to know about that part of the world, which is an immense loss to us. In some ways, I want to be more Asian, maybe even a little bit orangutangy. (By coincidence, my new receptivity to Southeast Asia would lead to another event that would revolutionize my life, meeting my partner Wendy, an American born in Taiwan. I am learning about eastern consciousness in a very personal way.)

Once you start learning about orangutans, you realize that they aren't inscrutable or remote. They have rich mental and emotional lives and you can learn about our world and ourselves from them.

Orangutans could be an example for us of an alternative way of relating to the world. They aren't caught up in the rat race of the social and political world that we are, that gorillas and chimpanzees are. They like to sit and ponder and enjoy the sensations of the natural world. They are more like introverts than extroverts.

To develop a connection with orangutans, you have to think of them as individuals and get to know them as individuals, instead of abstract members of a species. At least, that is what I thought and what I wanted to convey to people.

The reception to The Intimate Ape when it was published in 2010 was good, but it also made clear to me how much more publicity was necessary to make orangutans truly visible in public consciousness. There is still  a long way to go. Making orangutans visible will require stronger and more innovative initiatives for publicity than we have yet. And, for orangutans, threatened with extinction, the clock is ticking...

With a macaque friend in Bali