Our Opinion: Why I Don’t Want to Hold an Orangutan

Why I Don’t Want to Hold an Orangutan, by Kaleigh Rhoads, former Communications Intern for the Borneo Project

matangsitI left Berkeley on Tuesday night, lost my Wednesday in travel, and arrived in Kuching on Thursday afternoon. The only “Yank” in my group, the other six volunteers and I spent the evening eating Laksa, a spicy Sarawakian soup, and getting to know each other. On Friday morning, the airport managed to find my lost luggage and get it to me just in time to catch the bus to Matang Wildlife Center. 

All of the volunteers, including myself, admitted that we were a bit disappointed with Matang’s “no contact” policy. We had all seen adorable orangutan infants on television shows such as Orangutan Island, and more recently the documentary, Born to be Wild; and as avid animal lovers, longed for physical contact with these amazing orangutans. As work began and we learned more about orangutan rehabilitation though, these four points made the reason for this policy very clear:

1. Orangutans are incredibly powerful and can be dangerous to humans. In an attempt to discourage tourists from getting too close or harassing the orangutans, Matang Wildlife Centre has posted photos around the park of the resulting injuries of an orangutan bite. These attacks are typically not unprovoked and the result is negative for both human and orangutan. One mother and infant couple, here at the center, had previously been released into the national park, but must now live indefinitely in captivity after biting a grabby tourist who wanted to hold the baby. This is a truly unfortunate consequence for the protective orangutan mother and her young infant.

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2. Orangutans are genetically similar to humans and we can spread disease to them. At Matang Wildlife Center, all volunteers wear surgical masks anytime they are near an enclosure. Volunteers at this center come from all over the world and can carry diseases with them that an orangutan’s immune system is unable to fight off. Though there are centers throughout Borneo that do allow visitors to touch and even hold orangutan infants, this is an irresponsible practice which is known to increase infant mortality significantly.

3. Humans are a major threat to wild orangutans. Orangutans are often killed for raiding crops or are captured for the illegal wildlife trade. Many of the animals at Matang Wildlife Center were once kept as pets and have been habituated to humans. Physical contact with various volunteers would exacerbate this challenge to orangutan rehabilitation. A no contact policy supports this center’s goal of releasing all orangutans back to the wild and making them more self sufficient.

4. Orangutan infants are traumatized by the loss of their mother. Prized in the illegal pet trade, orangutan mothers are often killed so that their babies may be captured and sold. In the wild, orangutan infants remain with their mothers about eight years and have a close bond. Orphaned, these infants are missing this maternal affection and bond. While the opportunity to hold a young orangutan is certainly a wonderful experience and fantastic photo opportunity for a human, forming bonds with constantly cycling visitors may further traumatize an orphaned orangutan. Heartbreakingly illustrated in the book, The Orangutans: Their Evolution, Behavior, and Future, the consequences of such physical contact are made apparent when the author describes an encounter with Abbie, an orangutan orphan at a rehabilitation center in Sabah:

matangtree2“She [Abbie] seemed sad at first, but by the end of the day, her head was held high and she clearly had no intention of leaving, so strong was her need for closeness and protection. Of course, the time for separation came. We tried to heave her off Gisela, but she clung on hard. When, after much struggling, she was finally removed from her seat on the hip, she held on to Gisela’s legs with a firm grip and an increasingly alarmed expression. Then she started screaming. The screams were spine-chilling and could only be interpreted as cries of separation and desperation…With hindsight, our actions had been as unforgivable and irresponsible as they were innocent. We had playfully enjoyed the encounter, but there had been nothing playful in it for Abbie. She had desperately sought, and thought she had found, a new mother, only to be separated a second time.” 

There are facilities worldwide that attract tourists by advertising the touching or holding of wild animals. A true animal lover, though, should be well aware of and consider the wider implications of that moment and question any facility that allows such practices. Ask yourself, what is the benefit of this action to the animal?

Kaplan, Gisela and Rogers, Leslie. The Orangutans: Their Evolution, Behavior, and Future. Perseus Publishing. New York. 2000.

Photos by Kaleigh Rhoads