Thursday, July 7, 2016

Touched by an Orangutan

Many would consider training exotic animals a relatively extraordinary career, and certainly it is. However, elements of it become routine, just like any other job. There are things that are repetitive and routine that are essential components of most consultations. However, every once in a while unique opportunities present themselves that forever change you and your perception of the species you encounter in this profession.

Countries and cultures interact differently with animals and as a consultant I am adaptable so that I can be of help to the facilities that hire me.  This means I have sometimes found myself working free contact with species that some cultures would consider quite hands off.  It is very much a judgment call in that moment based on the situation. And many times I have recommended we work protected contact (with a barrier between people and the animal) if I felt the situation was not safe.  In this case, Eva the orangutan was only going to hurt me by melting my heart.

I have worked with a number of orangutans via protected contact. It is a different experience. It is fairly straight forward and easy to teach a great ape to present a number of behaviors on cue, one after another in a structured training session.  Usually behaviors that allow us to provide stress free medical care. Free contact is a different story.

Eva is part of a conservation education program. She presents natural behaviors and helps educate audiences about orangutan natural history and the challenges they are facing due to unsustainable palm oil farming in Indonesia. During training sessions Eva was free to roam the area and engage in all the wonderful activities and enrichment around her. This included other people, trees to climb, new things to explore and destroy. This meant coming back to people and leaving stage was sometimes a challenge. Think of letting your dog or child play in the park.  Your job, among other things, is to make yourself and what you would like your animal to do have more reinforcing value than those competing elements when it’s time to return to you. 

This also means thinking outside the box when it comes to reinforcers. Food isn’t always the “be all end all” reinforcer. Especially when it comes to an animal that is demonstrating to you that what it finds interesting, is engaging with its environment. For this reason, we made an effort to start gathering novel enrichment items whenever we were going to be working with Eva.

We also had to pay close attention to her body language. When was the exact moment she was ready to respond to us if we were to call her so that we could reinforce quick response to the cue? We also had to start under conditions in which she could be successful. This may mean cueing her when there were few distractions and when she was close to us initially.  Sound familiar? This is basic recall training. 

So while these elements of training overlap with what many trainers already know, every time I watch this snippet of video my heart still melts. It melts because I remember the feeling when she grabbed my hand to bring me with her to go play with the towel. The thought that this orangutan wanted me to join her makes my heart swell. Perhaps it is the very human like quality of orangutan behavior that touched me so much. But having an animal want you to participate is in my opinion, the highest compliment. She often sought me out and I found myself drawn to her as much as “I think” she was drawn to me. I kept wanting to visit her and have more sessions with her; and she would recognize me and immediately come to me. Maybe it was just about good training.  But I felt connected to this individual. I grew more concerned for her well-being which in turn made me think more and more about orangutans and their plight. And suddenly I found myself really wanting to know more about the destruction of forests in Indonesia for palm oil. These were things I thought I already knew about. But here I was in Indonesia working hands on with orangutans and now I felt like I really should know more.

The more I learned, the more I realized how dire the situation was. Beyond saving a species this was about helping a third world country find a sustainable way to feed its people, build its economy; so that the horrific things that were happening to orangutans (some stories too heartbreaking to share) would not be a choice a person needs to make in order to feed his or her family.  I also realized these are the kinds of issues that really deserve media attention. (Not the ones that currently seem to get so much focus. The issues that are about targeting excellent zoological institutions questioning their care about animals…..seriously? The biggest advocates I know for animal welfare and wildlife conservation are zoo professionals.)

Yes, working free contact with orangutans is not the norm, not without controversy, and there are many more aspects to discuss. However, the experience for me was life changing. Certainly an excellent lesson in real life application of learning theory principles, but most importantly the personal connection with an individual animal motivated me to a higher level of conservation action for a species on the brink of extinction.   

As a person who works in zoological parks we often speak of trying to help people connect and inspire conservation action. I work with many different animals frequently, and every once in a while have moments that are more moving than others.  I am still deeply impacted by that experience with Eva.  I am intrigued by coming up with more ways we can help others be equally moved in a way that is healthy, enriching and safe for both animals and people. This Xbox Kinect idea is just one that has potential in my opinion. 

I hope you too have the opportunity to connect deeply with some special animals and direct your energies into something that really needs your support.

Here are Some Organizations Working to Save Orangutans- Visit Their Sites for Ways to Help

Barbara Heidenreich
Copyright 2016

Barbara Heidenreich has been a professional animal trainer since 1990. Her company Barbara’s Force Free Animal Training ( provides animal training DVDs, books, webinars and workshops. She has been a featured speaker in over twenty countries and has been published in nine languages. Barbara works with the companion animal community and also consults on animal training in zoos.



Poquita95 said...

Wow, Barbara! What an experience!! I saw the video before I read your blog and I gasped when she took your hand! Not because I thought you were in any danger, but because I thought I recognized, in that moment, the exact same thing you did ... SHE was eliciting interaction with YOU!!! My heart swelled and tears came to my eyes when I saw that! I don't know how you held it together! LOL! Thank you for sharing this moment and for highlighting the plight of the orangutan (as well as many other endangered speicies) with us! ~ Rhonda LaBelle

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