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