Little Orange People
© Copyright 2020 by Steven Stilwell
Image by Herbert Aust from Pixabay
This one coherent thought raced through my brain between flashes of pure terror. I couldn’t even close my eyes. All I could do was stare at the hard firm dirt of the jungle floor below me from the spaces between the enclosure bars. Thirty feet. At that height you’ll either land on your head and death will be instant or break every bone in your body and live to regret it.
It was a cold comfort. As hard and chilling to my mind as the metal bars that poked into my stomach between the gap in my t-shirt and trousers. It was a strange sensation. Sweat was dripping down my back and face from the early morning humidity while the metal leached away the warmth in the front half of my body.
I tried moving my leg again but it was useless. Is wasn’t letting go of me any time soon. I could feel his grip tighten around my boots each time I tried to leverage them. Each wiggle, of each toe, felt like a boa constrictor going about the slow task of strangulation.
I stopped struggling. From this angle, all I could do with brute force was ensure that Is broke both of my ankles as well as keep me trapped.
I was laying flat on my stomach while an orangutan had a hold of both of my feet. Is had me pinned to the top of the thirty foot tall orangutan enclosure. Less than a foot in front of my face the bars ended and there was nothing but open air and a magnificent view of gravity.
There was no one else around. It was just Is, Bento, and myself. A human and two orangutans alone together in the lush Indonesian jungle.
In the distance I could hear the parakeets and cockatoos chirping from the bird enclosure. It was well past dawn and the refuge's animals were all awake. Soon, other volunteers would be out to feed and care for them.
I needed to get out of this before any of them saw me in this situation.
The jolt of fear at getting found out helped me push aside the terror of falling. I took a few deep breaths and twisted around on my side to get a look at my captor. The second I started moving I felt the pressure around my ankles tighten plus a new sensation: teeth, biting and scraping against my toes between the rubber soles of my hiking boots.
Now on my side, I could evaluate my situation for the first time. Is was grasping the top of the enclosure with one foot and one hand and both of my ankles with his other foot and hand. The toes of my right boot were stuck in the side of his mouth. Is was gnawing against them the way I would chew on a raw carrot and staring me right in the eye without a hint of malice. The way a toddler would.
Is’s eyes were an amber orange with flecks of gold. It was remarkable how similar in color they were to the thin tufts of orange fur patched all around his body. There wasn’t a place on Is’s entire body where you couldn’t see his weathered black skin underneath. Touching orangutan skin was like shaking hands with a farmer or mechanic: someone who uses their hands for work. It’s not rough like sandpaper, but instead thick and sturdy. One big callous stretched over sinew and muscle and a little belly fat.
When Is chose to be bipedal he was around four feet tall to the top of his head, with his arms again the length of his body. He walked with a swaying shuffle, like a saddle-sore cowboy, and waved both of his arms above his head for balance. Having thumbs on your feet makes walking with grace next to impossible.
Now, thirty feet higher, those two extra thumbs were all he needed to keep me trapped. Neither of us were going to be walking any time soon unless I came up with a plan.
In a direct contest of strength, there was no way that I was going to win against Is. We both knew it. Even if I was able to free myself from those iron hands without falling off the top of the enclosure it would be a few seconds before he grabbed onto me again and started the whole situation over. Those arms and legs, so awkward for walking on two legs, were meant to hang from tree tops for hours. It would take little effort for him to hang onto my legs for the rest of the day.
There were only two options left to me. I could yell for help and hope that someone heard or I could figure out a way to outsmart him.
In reality I knew there was one option left. I couldn't call for help. Volunteers were not supposed to have any physical contact with the wild animals that we took care of. So even if another volunteer heard me and found a way to help, it could be too late. I could lose the orangutans or worse get kicked out. I would have rather let Is chew on one of my less important toes than face that.
No one ever has a reason to question their place in the evolutionary hierarchy of species. That is, until the day an orangutan outsmarts them. I had spent four years at a university studying biology and anthropology. Any special knowledge I thought I possessed had become useless in a few careless seconds. All because of one bored, juvenile orangutan.
I had been in Indonesia for less than two months before the day I got trapped on top of the orangutan enclosure. The wildlife refuge that I was volunteering at was the most remote place that I had lived up to that point. The nearest city was a three hour drive away, and the closest town was thirty minutes. Everything between was roads, rarely paved, and swaths of secondary jungle. The dormitories we slept in weren't insulated from the outdoors. Everyone slept with bug spray and enshrouded in mosquito nets. This was the only way to protect ourselves from the insects that would creep in through the gaps in the walls. Our water flowed from a gravity fed well that stopped working after a few days in a row without rain. It was different from anything I had known, and I loved it.
The wildlife refuge was on the northern tip of the island of Sulawesi. Its function was to house animals rescued from the Indonesian black market. They stayed with us, captive but well cared for, until we could release them back into the wild or find them a better facility.
The variety of species housed there was astounding. You could walk through the animal enclosure and see anything from gibbons, macaques, and cassowary, to crocodiles or sun bears. There were also, of course, orangutans.
The refuge's labor force was almost all made up of foreign volunteers. Volunteers were also their main source of funding. Everyone who volunteered paid for the experience. The demographic was all over the map. On one side you had kids, eighteen years old looking for adventure between school breaks. The other side was retirees in their sixties looking for a meaningful way to spend their time and money. In the middle were professionals, or quasi-professionals. We had budding environmentalists and qualified conservationists, educators, and academics. In the end, backgrounds meant little. We all wanted to save endangered species.
I fell into the middle of the Venn diagram of a few of those categories. I was twenty two and fresh out of university. I was aching to put down the textbooks and see some of the big wide world that was so new to me. I was also an academic, an anthropologist who had spent most of his school days studying primates. An important phase of my life had ended when I graduated, and I had no clue which step to take to find the next one. Indonesia seemed like the perfect place to find out.
Before my time in Indonesia, the closest that I had ever come to an orangutan was studying their bones in a lab. Everything is easier in labs or textbooks than out in the field. In school I could point to certain muscle attachments on certain bones and tell you that they suggested strength. This does little for comprehending reality. The vice-grip brawn it takes to immobilize a grown human twice your weight is staggering.
I could have cited textbooks and academic articles talking about orangutan intelligence. Dogs are also smart. There's a difference that you can't understand until one of them outsmarts you. Dogs don't get bored and set traps for you. They can't steal your stuff from behind a locked cage door when you are not looking. You can train a dog. Even in a cage, orangutans are wild.
Bento and Is would never be released back into the wild. Stolen from their mother's too young and sold on the black market, neither of them now had the skills to function as wild orangutans. Now in adolescence, the two of them had spent the majority of their lives in one cage or another. Abuse on the black market had turned into boredom at a wildlife refuge. They were waiting for funds that may never come to take them to a new, better situation.
My job, twice a day, was to turn fruit, sticks, and strings into puzzles and games for the two of them to solve. Most of these puzzles were simple and solved in seconds. Fruit wrapped in bamboo was no match for their strong teeth and jaws. To make the process more difficult I would leave fruit outside their enclosure. They would use sticks and palm fronds to snatch it off the ground. It took them longer to eat their meals but the process was time consuming, not difficult.
As time wore on I came up with variations to the stick game. My favorite was to hang fruit high above the top of their enclosure by strings. It took them twice as long as normal because they had to hang from the top of the bars to knock the fruit free. Besides fine motor control it also required planning on their part. If one of them knocked fruit free without a plan, it would fall to the ground and get eaten by the other. All that hard work wasted, with no reward.
That's why that morning, with my partner out sick, I was on top of the orangutan enclosure, alone with my basket of fruit on a string.
Orangutans are gentle animals. Bento was always gentle. A couple of years older than Is and twice the size, Bento had a thick carpet of deep, orange-yellow fur and cheek plates. Most people bothered Bento so he kept to himself. I left him alone and he didn't bother me when I was trying to work. It was an easy relationship.
In contrast, Is was curious and bored. Novelty will trump a gentle nature every time. A stranger walking on top of your enclosure hanging avocado and papaya is as exciting as it gets for a captive orangutan.
I hung enough fruit that I got good at dancing around Is's hands when they would dart through the enclosure bars. There was a point where I could tie fruit and dodge orangutan hands at the same time.
Weeks passed and my company around meal time became routine. When the same person walks across the top of your house twice a day the newness fades fast. I danced less and less on top of the cage as Is’s curiosity at my presence dimmed. I became so established that, most of the time, all I had to do was move a foot to one side or another.
For many months I spent more time with those orangutans than I did with other humans. I took care of them and I fed them. When you spend your time taking care of another creature you can't help but form a relationship with them. Like any relationship, with any person, you start trusting, and then begin to let your guard down.
It's so easy to forget. You forget that they are not little orange people who climb around in cages and eat avocados. They're wild animals. Rescued and in captivity, but still wild and unpredictable. You spend time with them and empathize with them. You start to read the sadness on their faces like you would a neighbor or friend. Without meaning to, bit by bit you grant them personhood and then that is how you start to see them.
The sad truth with any wild animal is, no matter how smart they are, there is no reasoning with them. It is like trying to reason with an infant to stop crying. To this day I have no idea how much of that relationship was one sided, in my own head. I do know that it was the reason I got pinned to the top of that cage.
When I left for Indonesia I bought myself a pair of good hiking boots. They had thick rubber soles that would last a year or longer in normal circumstances. Now they were down to minutes. I had seen those strong jaws crack bamboo with ease countless times. I needed to make a plan and I needed to do it before Is got through my boots and hit flesh. The first step in accomplishing this would be to get back onto my feet.
I twisted to my other side and felt the vice grip around my ankles tighten. The constant gnawing pressure of teeth on toe stopped.
My now visibly gouged and ripped right boot was free. I squinted and could see the tips of my white sock between the cracks in the marred rubber. I looked at Is again and saw that he had untied my boot laces and wrapped them around his back molars. My boot may have been out of his mouth, but it had done little to help me get free.
Is still had a double hold on my right foot that I had to try and find a way to break. A few feet away my fruit basket was laying on its side, spilling its bounty onto the enclosure floor below. Thirty feet under our little drama Bento was ignoring the both of us and picking up the pieces of his work free meal.
Watching Bento act like he always did, slow, quiet, predictable gave me an idea. You could expect certain behaviors in almost all orangutans, even Is. My new plan was to use Is's own orangutan-ness against him.
Orangutans never use less than two of their four limbs to hang off of anything. This is true whether it is a tree in the wild or enclosure bars in captivity. Bento and Is may lack basic survival skills for the wild but they were still orangutans and this held true.
At the moment it didn't matter. Is had more than enough limbs to dangle from his enclosure and grab both of my ankles. I had to try and get in a good enough position to give him options. Choices for different body parts of mine to grab so he would let go of my feet.
I ignored the increase of pressure in my sore ankles and rolled onto my back. My cockeyed ankles were now at a tortuous forty-five degree angle to the rest of my body. I pushed the heels of my boots against the enclosure bars and bent my knees so I could stretch my arms toward my feet.
The ruse worked. The tightness around my ankles disappeared and metastasized itself around my wrists instead. There were a few stressful seconds of stretching and pulling but I was able to use Is’s grip and my planted boots as leverage to get onto my feet.
It was easy to get his hands off my wrists. Like human arms, orangutan forearms aren't meant to twist from side to side. If a person or an orangutan is grabbing your wrists, and won't let go, rotate them side to side and you'll be free.
Is let go of my wrists. Then an instant later he grabbed the end of my shirt with both hands and pulled. The force hunched me over double. I could hear the cheap cotton collar groan and tear as it stretched down towards my nipples.
I moved my now free left foot off to the side and out of Is’s reach. Is caught on to my plan and decided that my leg was a better option than a ruined shirt. He let go of the shirt and wrapped himself around my still trapped right leg.
My situation had improved a great deal. I was no longer on my belly hoping I wouldn't fall to an early death. Instead I was now doing the half splits in a new t-shirt crop top while an orangutan hung from one of my legs. It was good progress.
Is still had my bootlaces in his mouth. There was no saving them. I took a small folding knife from my trouser pocket and severed them while he was still focused on my trapped leg.
I was all but free. Two orangutan arms and one of my own legs were all I had left to worry about.
I decided to try the arm trick once again. Like before, I dangled my arms low and hoped he would grab onto my wrists. Once he did I would move my leg, free my wrists and then run like hell.
It almost worked. He let go of my leg but instead of grabbing onto my arms he grabbed the collar of my now dismantled shirt. With one boom, crack, and tear, the seams gave out. My shirt slid halfway down my chest while the strength behind it put me down on one knee.
Is kept pulling. I kept resisting. In the end it was the shirt that lost. The stitching on my bulk Hanes three pack was never made to be orangutan battle tested. Both shoulders split open. The piece near my navel that had once been the collar dissolved away. I shrugged off the dilapidated remains and ran bare chested as fast I could across the cage bars. I was on the ladder and halfway to solid ground before Is discovered that the ripped green cloth he was playing with no longer had a person inside of it. I had only paused long enough to grab my fruit basket on the way down.
My fight on top of the cage had left me hot and tired. Sweat dripped down my bare chest from exertion and the humidity. It stung the rope burn-welts on the back of my neck and arms from where Is had pulled on my shirt. I couldn't walk fast. Both of my ankles were sore and swollen. My right laceless boot flipped and flopped with each awkward step. With the bright red plastic fruit basket swinging in my left hand I knew I was a sorry sight.
It was a long walk back to the dormitories. I made it longer, limping along the jungle paths, in the vain hope that I would avoid any witnesses.
I was three quarters of the way there when I turned a corner and stumbled into a group of animal keepers. They were all sitting or squatting around a few upturned logs on a break, waiting for their workday to start.
They stopped chatting when they saw me. I now had six sets of brown eyes goggling at me, each with a different question that they didn't know how to ask in English. I didn't know any Indonesian beyond “please”, and “thank you”.
I gave them only one word explanation that I was able.
“Orangutan,” I said, speaking to my ruined boots.
I mimed a pulling motion in front of my exposed chest as if I was grabbing an invisible shirt that wasn’t there.
The keepers roared with laughter and jumped up from their seats. They were all broad smiles as they chatted to each other in Indonesian that I couldn’t understand.
One came over and put his arm around my bare shoulders and showed me a scar on his right pointer finger. It was about three inches long and ran under the nail, criss-crossed his knuckle, and ended where the finger met his hand.
“Orangutan,” he said, and gave me a wink.
I chuckled with them now and, with a small wave, started back toward the dormitories. As I walked past a few patted my shoulder in solidarity.
I could hear chuckles bouncing through the jungle long after the group of keepers were out of sight. They had all been too busy laughing to notice my awkward shuffle or that my right boot was halfway off my foot. All I could do was sigh in relief.
I didn’t learn until I lived in Indonesia that “orangutan” is a combination of two Indonesian words, “orang” means person and “hutan” means forest. Forest person. It was a perfect name for Bento and Is in more than one way, both because it showed what they had and what they didn't.
After the incident on top of the cage, I lived for four more months at the refuge. That whole time and long after, I never stopped loving both of those orangutans. That was the first and last time I went on top of the enclosure alone. It's good to have trust, but when it comes to wild animals, you shouldn't test it, and never more than once.
There’s a similarity to building a relationship between a person and an orangutan. In the end, you can never know how one sided it may or may not be. You can trust a dog when they act like they love you. A relationship with a human or an orangutan always has that place of doubt. In the end with a human, you make a decision. You either do or don’t trust them. With an orangutan you either can’t or shouldn’t.
All these years later, the wildness and lust for the newness of the world is still there, deep in my bones. The academic side has faded. My short six-month stint as a conservationist was enough for me to decide on a different life path. Now, wildlife conversation brings to my mind images of little orange people in cages, waiting in limbo, for anything better and it breaks my heart.