Saturday, July 2, 2011

Abandonment and Karma

It’s hard to be an Orangutan Dad in exile. Separated by thousands of miles from the child you raised, now a grown lady. Princess is in her mid-to late 30s now, a mother of five (four surviving offspring) and a grandmother of two. My entire orangutan family (Princess, Peta, Pan, Percy, Putri, and Peta’s kids) live in a forest far, far away. I know she is doing well in Borneo, but that doesn’t stop me from missing her or thinking about her.

Perhaps it is only fair that I feel the pangs of separation now in light of the feelings of abandonment she must have felt when I left her for a year in 1980. I left to return to the United States that June day after spending nearly 2 years at Camp Leakey conducting my doctoral research. I had made occasional trips away from Camp to do the usual shopping and occasional expedition. Each time I left Camp and Princess, I heard she would come to the dock and wait for me. At 4-5 years of age, she would still be with her mother. Already she experienced the loss of her biological mother- an act that was both terrifying and psychologically stressful for her. Now, she was facing the classic abandonment phenomenon and each time I returned to Camp, she would cling to me even tighter.

Her attachment to me was reinforced by the daily life she led with me as her orangutan dad. I would bring her breakfast which was used as the context of her sign language lessons. Not a particularly interested student, Princess would quickly head to the trees after the hour long lesson which gave me an opportunity to swim across the river to work with Rinnie (an adult free-ranging orangutan) or conduct a “special session” with orangutans Hampas and Rantai. They were two youngsters who along with Princess and Pola, formed the group of students that were the “subjects” of my dissertation study.

I would also take Princess to the nearby forest or the river to give her other contexts to learn and practice signs. Princess had become very capable of washing clothes after watching the camp staff, though she wasn’t that concerned about how clean they came out. If she smelled too ripe she would join me for a swim and a bath in the Sekonyer River. In the afternoon, she would be given milk and fruit with other orangutans if she wasn’t with me. But if we were together, I would let her explore and provide her with food and drink so she would have something of interest to motivate her to sign with me. Evening meals were taken mostly on the porch of the room we shared but occasionally in the staff dining hall.

In the evening as dusk fell when wild orangutans were making their nests preparing for their nightly rest, Princess would be finishing her last signing session and then taken to bed. I would lie in bed with her as she clung to me. Her coarse hair would sometimes feel uncomfortable against my smooth skin, but after a while, she would fall asleep and I would slowly extract myself from her grip. Usually, I was able to do some work on the data collected before the dinner bell sounded. Occasionally, she would wake and begin to cry before I could leave my living quarters. Her crying quickly abated as she drifted back to her orangutan dreams. Just another day for the Orangutan Dad.

I made a choice to leave Camp Leakey after nearly 2 years. It was a difficult decision to leave Princess and the others but I knew I had reached a pivotal point in my academic career. I had to data to analyze, a thesis to write up and school work to finish. My sister wedding that month gave me further reason to leave at that moment. I made plans to return a year later. However, as I left Camp Leakey, I didn’t want to have an emotional goodbye – so I snuck out Camp Leakey “like a thief in the night” to avoid an encounter with Princess. She had already joined her friends for the afternoon playtime in the local forest. When I returned to North America, I heard she came to the river every day for months waiting for me to return to Camp- as I had done previously. But eventually she stopped coming to the river – perhaps giving up on my ever returning. Abandoned once again.

So the Orangutan Dad is getting his just desserts now. Princess is perfectly content without me in her life. Orangutan adults are very much self-contained. And as a mother, she has her hands full. But we humans need others to give our lives meaning and fulfillment. My orangutan daughter still means something important to me, and I will have to be patient until I see her again.


The Orangutan Dad is also President & Co-Founder of the Orang Utan Republik Foundation. The mission of OURF is to save orangutans through education and other innovative collaborative projects. For more information visit

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Separation and Reunion

This Orangutan Dad misses his daughter Princess. The last time I saw her was in August 2008 when I accompanied an Indonesian film crew to tape OUREI's 3rd Documentary. Our reunion was brief, as it always is nowadays. One or two days at most.

When I do visit her in and around Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park, I call out her name to let her know that I am back. Inevitably (and it took a couple days to find her last time), she will come to the ground with a dependent infant with her (last time it was with her daughter Putri). There is no hugging or hooting as one would see with chimpanzees reuniting with lost relatives or friends. Orangutans are more subdued in their emotions. We will simply sit together, and I will go over some of the signs she learned years ago: leaf, hat, grass, and maybe a few food signs.

I am convinced Princess remembers me - her Orangutan Dad. I am convinced by her behavior. She sits dutifully as she did as a juvenile while I mold her hands and makes valiant efforts to recreate the signs she perfected during her daily lessons 32 years ago. At some point she will take me by the hand and lead me around Camp Leakey to a locked door behind which bananas are stored. She will tap the door knob (a poor sign for "open") as a request for me to open the door. On earlier visit, Princess pointed to the cuts or scars on her skin, perhaps showing me a type of "written" account of traumatic encounters in her life in my absence -now indelible on her skin. I put some ointment on her skin like I did decades ago and sign "hurt".

A wild orangutan lives a life of solitude in many ways- no community group to come home to - instead they spend their days alone (or with dependent offspring if a mother) in search of food, navigating the canopy, and making arboreal nests for resting. On occasion their lives are punctuated by interactions with other orangutans, particularly when feeding in trees with ripe fruit. Encounters with a specific individual are generally unemotional affairs. Even an independent female's reunion with her mother after many months (who typically ranges in the adjacent forest) would not stand out to the human observer as eliciting the same the type of excitement seen in social animals (dogs, chimps, and people come to mind). But they are very aware of the relationship. They will glance at each other while they feed, acknowledging each other's presence. Then they will part company and continue their journey perhaps with an understanding they will encounter each other again sometime in the near future.

The last time I left Princess was almost 3 years ago, departing like a sneaky burglar in the night, hoping not to be noticed. No goodbyes, no farewells. There are no tears when an independent orangutan takes leave of a family member. That is not the case for a dependent orangutan or a human -a topic for another blog. For now, this Orangutan Dad wonders about his daughter's forest exploits, her well being, and looks forward to seeing her again.


The Orangutan Dad is also President & Co-Founder of the Orang Utan Republik Foundation. The mission of OURF is to save orangutans through education and other innovative collaborative projects. For more information visit

Monday, February 21, 2011

Jury Duty for the Orangutan Dad

It must have made actress Kim Bassinger smile when she heard me answer the judge’s pattern questions to each potential juror. Yes, I was on jury duty that day, and yes, Kim Bassinger was on trial in a breach of contract lawsuit.

“Your honor, I am married, and have two children, one human and one non-human,” I proudly stated. A few stifled laughs could be heard in the courtroom, but after the judge gave me a follow up question to explain myself, I calmly mentioned that for two years I had adopted a juvenile orangutan as my daughter in the jungles of Borneo, taught her sign language as part of my doctoral research, and still consider her my child today. There, I admitted it in a court of law, not because I wanted to look like a kook trying to get out of jury duty, but because I am genuinely proud to consider myself the father (adopted father) of a wonderful and beautiful girl- even if she is several percent genetically removed from my own gene pool. To say that in a court of law only testifies to my own belief in the validity of the relationship and the connection I have shared with her in the years since first “adopting” her.

Kim, sitting with Alec Baldwin, gave me a wink as I passed by her on my way out of the court room. I was one of several prospective jurors excused that day from jury duty. But my duty as an orangutan dad continues to this day.


The Orangutan Dad is also President & Co-Founder of the Orang Utan Republik Foundation. The mission of OURF is to save orangutans through education and other innovative collaborative projects. For more information visit