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Zoo’s new center brings greater awareness on plight of apes

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Indianapolis’ newest star scrambled up a ladder, plopped down on a platform and peered through a window at the crowds gathered to see him.

Rocky, a 9-year-old orangutan, pressed his face against the glass of the new International Orangutan Center. His massive arms gripped the edge of the window, and he stared at the people who were already staring back at him.

Below him, six other orangutans clambered along a concrete floor. Some went after lettuce strategically hidden on window ledges. Others hung from cables designed like the vines the apes would find in Indonesia.

Some of the world’s rarest creatures are making their home at the Indianapolis Zoo. Eight orangutans, Asian apes disappearing in staggering numbers, have made their home in the zoo’s International Orangutan Center. When it opens

May 24, it will be the most comprehensive zoo habitat for orangutans in the world.

They’ll spend their days climbing poles, swinging on cables to nearby platforms and hanging from bars 50-feet in the air. The habitat is meant to re-create the jungles of Borneo as much as possible, giving the apes a sense of their home, said Rob Shumaker, vice president of conservation and life sciences at the Indianapolis Zoo.

“Elements of this facility are found in other places. But what we’ve done is combined all of the best elements for orangutans in one place, and also expanded on that,” he said. “We’re providing more height, more opportunities for travel, more opportunities for social interaction.”

The International Orangutan Center is a $21.5 million habitat for orangutans, one of the world’s great apes along with gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos.

The animals can live for up to 60 years, weigh between 150 and 250 pounds and have arm-spans of about 9 feet, twice their height.

“Orangutan bodies are made to live in the forest canopy. So most of their strength is in their upper body. They have to have areas where they can move their arms and legs and hands and feet interchangeably,” Shumaker said.

In the past, orangutans were found all over Asia, from China to India. Now, the apes are mostly found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra in Indonesia.

The population has dwindled to an estimated 41,000. The culprit is deforestation. Without the canopies of tall trees in thick forests, orangutans can’t survive.

“Sadly, they have the most severe threats for survival in the wild. They are predicted to be the first species of great ape to go extinct in recorded history,” Shumaker said.

Educating the public and bringing awareness to this issue was part of the impetus to build the International Orangutan Center.

Adding an exhibit featuring great apes has been a goal of the Indianapolis Zoo since it opened, said Paul Grayson, deputy director and senior vice president of conservation and science.

“We also felt the plight of great apes was becoming dire enough that we needed to get them in here, and use them as ambassadors for their wild counterparts,” he said.

Zoo officials focused on orangutans because no great exhibits had been dedicated to them yet. Indianapolis had the chance to do something extraordinary, that had never been done before, Grayson said.

Construction started on the center in late 2012. Since that time, crews have built the varying parts of the orangutan exhibit.

The atrium, an all-season habitat with a full wall of windows, gives the apes a place to play and socialize.

As the center’s main living area, it is designed to be more vertical, since orangutans are most comfortable living in the canopies of the trees.

“Every space is usable for the apes. They can walk across the floor, they can climb up the walls, they can climb to the ceilings. We want it to function just like the wild would in terms of how they can use it with their bodies,” Shumaker said.

All of the orangutans live in a holding area at the base of the center. During the day, the animals are let out into a day room, a massive open play area with poles, cables and platforms.

“They all have their own individual personalities. They spend a fair amount of time playing then resting,” said Susanne Wyatt, a senior keeper at the Indianapolis Zoo. “They’re active at first in the day room, because they want to find the treats and scope out their area.”

The orangutans also are given access to outdoor areas, where the apes can climb and play, Wyatt said. From the yards, they can climb up into the Hutan Trail. This series of 10 poles and platforms, some as high as 80 feet in the air, is connected by cables.

Apes can scramble from one to the other over the rest of the zoo complex, while visitors on the ground watch them frolic. A skyline gondola will give people an aerial view of the orangutans on the ground, as well as up in the Hutan Trail.

“Right now, orangutans are the least understood of the great apes,” Shumaker said. “The more we understand about them, the better prepared we can be to focus on their conservation in the wild and their needs in zoo settings.”

Researchers also will be testing the animals to learn about their intelligence. Orangutans already are known as the most patient problem solvers and are able to work on a puzzle for a long period of time to solve it.

But Christopher Martin, an expert in strategic reasoning with the Center for International Collaboration and Advanced Studies in Primatology, will be doing more to see just how smart these apes are.

Special computers have been set up in one of the center’s observing areas, and the orangutans will be playing games that measure their problem-solving ability.

“The games probe how they think about the world, how they perceive the world,” he said. “We can test a lot of theories about the evolution of sociality with great apes using orangutans. Orangutans have solitary lives in the forest, so we can test their social cognition, if it’s as good as a chimpanzee.”

Some of the exercises will include playing rock-paper-scissors against a computer, as well as other humans.

“People would be surprised to lose to them, which will happen,” Martin said.

Educational displays in an exploration hub overlooking the orangutan atrium will teach people about the habitat that the apes need, how the mothers care for the babies and the leaves and fruit they eat in the rainforest.

Facts and figures show how the apes are disappearing and feature encouraging efforts to maintain the orangutan population.

All of this will help people understand the animals more, Shumaker said.

“But more than that, the hope isn’t that people walk away with facts and figures. My hope is that people walk away with a very different feeling about orangutans. That they walk away caring more about them, or feeling positively about them, or just wondering more about them,” Shumaker said. “What I hope is that we have an attitudinal change, that we can change people’s hearts about orangutans.”

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