Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Strange Encounter

As I was heading out of the zoo last week, I checked to see if there were any orangutans out and found this one wearing an unusual sunhat. Or something. Although it was sunny that day, I can’t say for sure what purpose the pile of hay served. I’m not even sure it was put on in order to serve a specific function; maybe this orang always wanted to be Carmen Miranda. What I found particularly interesting was that s/he took the hay-hat off when climbing up the O-line tower, then put it back in place once s/he had descended. So it’s definitely not a climbing accessory (or maybe you can only wear hay in towers before Labor Day, not after).

The orangutan hadn’t done this just on a whim—or, I should say, s/he was very much aware of the hay and how s/he wanted it, even adjusting it when its position didn’t seem to suit him/her.

As I watched and photographed the behavior of this orangutan I was joined by a small group of women, several with children in strollers, all in exercise clothes and equipped with long, thick elastic bands with handles. The leader of the group put an elastic band around the railing outside the orangutan enclosure and explained the particular exercises the women were supposed to do: some kind of supported squats and some kind of upper-body exercise, too, since they were all supposed to pull on the bands as they did this.

I find these types of exercises slightly odd in and of themselves—but, then, not everyone likes to spend hours in front of a cuttlefish tank, either, so I recognize that my tastes are not universal. But what actually disturbed me was the way the leader of this group talked; she had the stentorian voice typical of exercise-group leaders everywhere, and she spoke in words so simple—in some cases, so infantilized—as to make me wonder whether she was addressing the mothers or their young children. “So you’re going to pull this so that it’s level with your boobs,” she would say, or would tell them how to position their “tushie” or their “heiny” (one of the helpful comparisons involved bending as if hovering over a dirty toilet seat—this simile upset me so much that I felt the need to share it with all of you).

In spite of my—quiet and concealed—horror, I stayed where I was and continued taking pictures of the orangutan. For a moment I found myself thinking, “Oh, I should move over, so these people have more room,” and then I caught myself. First, it’s not as if they were cramped. Secondly, this was not an aerobics classroom. I actually ended up hoping that someone would ask me to move so that I could say sharply, “I’m sorry; is my watching the animals at the zoo interrupting your exercises?” –But no one said anything. They were all quite polite, and except for the carrying voice and horrible word-choice of the leader, they would have been no problem at all. As it was, they were mainly a curiosity.

I wasn’t the only one who thought so. At one point, the hay-hatted orangutan gave them the benefit of a long, grave look. S/he turned to look at me, and we shared a glance of perfect comprehension.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}


Anca said...

I laughed out loud! And I want a hat like that. Could you talk to your non-human companion and see if s/he's taking up millinery for our mentally impoverished but bottom-firming species?

pattinase (abbott) said...

Can an animal be humorous and ferocious at the same time. That last shot makes me believe it. Maybe he was tired of getting his picture taken.

Janet said...

Just having come from exercise class when I first read your blog, I can't say much about the bouncing ladies, but I can say a bit about your wonderful ethnographically-interesting photos. Your shots convince me that we humans are closely connected to these primates no matter how much closer we are said to be to chimpanzees and bonobos and those other guys. They remind me of my last day in Philly in 1968 when an oranguatan mother sent me a smoldering gaze at the Philadelphia Zoo.

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

Well, you know, we're *most* closely related, genetically, to chimpanzees, but we're still quite closely to gorillas and orangutans--and I often feel more drawn to the dignity of gorillas and the piercing watchfulness of orangutans than the all-too-human behavior of chimpanzees.

Unknown said...

*Brilliant* post and fascinating straw-hat-wearing behavior. Love it, love it, love it!

Andrea (DiTo) said...

On the evolutionary chain (I am no biologist) I would place Orangutan faenensis (hay-bearing) above Crepidula fornicata (I think I met one in my youth) above Pilatea bandida intrusiva (maybe they could wrap their handled bands around each other and not infringe on the Orangutan's domain). Great photos!

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...