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
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
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
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 www.orangutanrepublik.org.