The first orangutans to live in Iowa, Azy and his sister Indah, arrived last week at a new 200 acre facility a few miles southeast of Des Moines. They will be the focus of a language and behavior study program which launches the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, a research center dedicated to the great apes.
Azy, 26, and Indah, 24, were flown to Iowa in a chartered plane from the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, DC, where they were born.
Azy was raised at the Albuquerque Zoo. He returned to the National Zoo in 1980 and began participating in the Think Tank and Orangutan Language Project in 1995 with Dr. Rob Shumaker, who directs the research program at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa.
Azy weighs about 270 pounds and has an arm span of over eight feet. He is very receptive to learning new language skills and demonstrating those remarkable skills to visitors, Dr. Shumaker says.
Indah was raised at the San Diego Zoo. In 1984, she returned to the National Zoo, and she too began participating in the Think Tank and Orangutan Language Project with Dr. Shumaker in 1995. Smaller in size than her brother, Indah weighs about 120 pounds.
Azy accepts a pepper from Dr. Rob Shumaker soon after he arrives at the Great Ape Trust. (Photo by Steve Pope courtesy Great Ape Trust)
Shumaker believes that cognitive research with great apes can help scientists discover the boundaries of humanity - which skills and characteristics are uniquely human and which are not.
A student of orangutans for 20 years, he is particularly interested in their ability to use a system of symbols to ommunicate.
The orangutans are learning to use a symbol-based language presented on a computer monitor. The monitor screen has buttons that are large enough for orangutan fingers.
The dictionary available on the monitor contains about 70 symbols. All symbols are abstract and have no visual relation to what they represent, Dr. Shumaker explains.
There are seven categories of symbols, each containing 10 individual symbols. The categories are: foods, non-food objects, proper names of people, proper names of orangutans, verbs, adjectives and arabic numbers.
Each category of symbols has its own specific exterior shape. For example, a rectangle alone means "food" and a circle alone means "non-food object."
In addition to the major categories, there are symbols that mean "send," "clear," "yes/good," and "no/wrong." The dictionary can be expanded as the orangutans learn more symbols.
Indah means beautiful in Indonesian (Photo courtesy Great Ape Trust)
The orangutans participate in this project on a voluntary basis, Shumaker explains. The animals are never coerced into working by being deprived of food, companionship, play time or anything else.
The Great Ape Trust of Iowa was established to provide "sanctuary and an honorable life for great apes," the organization says, and to advance conservation of great apes.
Situated on a former sand and gravel quarry near the Des Moines River, the Great Ape Trust will be the largest great ape facility in North America and one of the first anywhere in the world to include all four types of great ape - bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.
The arrival of Azy and Indah on September 28 began a new chapter in their lives and in the life of the Great Ape Trust.
“This is a milestone, to be sure,” said Ted Townsend, Great Ape Trust founder. “Azy and Indah are the first of many great apes who will call this home. It’s a significant day for them, but more importantly, a historic day for the future of great ape research, conservation and education."
"What they have to teach us is a very important lesson that all humankind needs to learn," said Townsend. "It is here at Great Ape Trust where scientists, great apes and the public will experience a new reality.”
Beginning in January 2005, the Great Ape Trust will provide small groups with the chance to visit Azy and Indah and view an orangutan language research session conducted by Dr. Shumaker.
Dr. Shumaker serves on the scientific advisory board of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation in the United States and in Indonesia, the orangutans' native land.