Zoo Atlanta: Caring for Orangutans
Zoo Atlanta houses the largest zoological collection of orangutans in North America, with a total of 13 individuals. These orangutans are managed in 4 separate groupings.
Meet their groups
- The Bornean family features the 18 year old male Sulango, his 19 year old mate Miri, and their eight year old son, Satu.
- The largest group, is led by hybrid male Chantek, who is 33. It also includes 28 year old Sumatran female Madu and the three young Sumatran males she has surrogate-reared, nine year old Bernas (known as Junie), five year old Dumadi, and the latest addition to the family, six month old Remy.
- A second mixed group includes 32 year old Sumatran male Benny, 15 year old Sumatran female Blaze, and the 27 year old hybrid female, Nikki.
- The final group is comprised of an older pair of Sumatrans, Alan C. and Biji, both 40.
Meet their Orangutans
- Madu is the most successful surrogate mother in North America. She raised Junie, who was rejected by his birth mother, from about six months of age. Years later, when Dumadi’s mother died unexpectedly shortly after his birth, he was brought to Atlanta at about nine months old to be adopted by Madu. And just this year, when Remy’s mother became too ill to care for him at his birth institution, Madu was called into service again – and immediately accepted him. Madu and Remy spent time alone together indoors to ensure a strong bond, but the whole group has been reunited now, and it is great fun watching them all together! Madu is protective of Remy, and the boys are gentle with him – and Chantek watches it all serenely.
- Chantek continues to amaze. He was raised in what some people call an “enculturated” environment, in a hands-on, human-oriented situation. Chantek was taught sign language, and he still uses many signs to communicate with his caregivers. His extensive understanding of spoken human language also provides for a unique situation – keepers can often speak to Chantek just as they would to one another, and that ability only strengthens the bond between them.
- Chantek isn’t the only orangutan with an education! Madu, the super-surrogate, was also raised in a research environment, and much of her early history included exposure to cognitive studies. It appears that this has made her much more adaptable than any of the other orangutans here to participating in more orangutan-friendly cognitive research. One of Zoo Atlanta’s orangutan exhibits includes a large tree-like structure, in which is installed a touch-screen computer. Zoo scientists use this computer screen to present cognitive puzzles (picture the old card game “Concentration”). Because the screen is on-exhibit, the orangutans are free to participate or not, and as an additional bonus, visitors are able to watch the process. So far, Madu has proved to be the class valedictorian, excelling at the cognitive challenges and doing so for long periods of time, with apparent genuine enjoyment.
- Benny and Nikki are here temporarily, while exciting new homes are under construction for them at another AZA institution. Benny and Nikki are unique to us here because they are former entertainment-industry orangutans. Their histories are quite different from that of orangutans raised more naturally, and they show some clear evidence of that unusual past. Benny is rapidly overcoming his apparent anxiety of the outdoors and is spending lots of time outside with Nikki and Blaze. Nikki, a more laid back and confident personality, took readily to the outside, happily mounting the climbers and settling into hammocks.
- The Bornean group (Sulango, Miri, and Satu ) are a young family, and Zoo Atlanta’s first experience with this species of orangutan. Miri and Sulango (who is just getting his cheekpads) are tightly bonded; this is definitely a family that stays together!
- The senior citizens Alan and Biji are currently involved in reproductive efforts that are critically important to the SSP program. Especially at their age, we are concerned about capturing their genetic representation in the captive gene pool, so we have been working hard to encourage a romantic spark! The two seem very close and affectionate now, so we are hopeful for a positive outcome.
All of the orangutans at Zoo Atlanta are special and unique, and much loved by their caretakers and the visiting public alike. Maintaining such a large and complex collection is challenging, but the unique personalities make it very rewarding.