Patrick Skene-Catling

The great monkey puzzle

Chris Herzfeld’s account of the orangutan Wattana, in need of constant mental stimulation, suggests that primates are really just like us

King Kong, the story of a violently amorous gorilla, Me Cheeta, the autobiography of a slanderous Hollywood chimpanzee, and now this, a benign biological, psychological and cultural survey, comes in further recognition of the versatility of our primate cousins. Both collateral branches of our family seem doomed (too many humans, too few apes), unless. . . Chris Herzfeld, a philosopher of science, an artist and a founder of the Great Apes Enrichment Project, has written a movingly tragic study in praise of Wattana, a Bornean orangutan. Even the restrained academic publisher calls it ‘poignant’.

Commercial depredations are spoiling Wattana’s ancestral forest habitat at such a rate that the orangutans of Borneo will probably be extinct by 2030. In the meantime, Wattana and other captives surviving in zoos show how intelligent, talented and affectionate orangutans can be.

Herzfeld writes:

The last common ancestors of chimpanzees and humans are thought to have lived six million years ago . . . An orangutan shares approximately 97 per cent of its genes with humans, and it is the great ape that is the least closely related to our species.

Herzfeld summarises the history of primatology all the way from a Carthaginian admiral’s sightings of apes on the coast of West Africa five or six centuries BC. She tells of 15th-century colonial navigators who collected primates to glorify their patrons, and how the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes was established in Paris immediately after the French Revolution, to exhibit exotic animals to the ordinary public. Many other nations followed suit; now thousands of apes are exhibited in zoos all over the world.

Wattana was born in Antwerp Zoo in 1995. Her young mother abandoned her, so she was bottle-fed by keepers, then reared in Stuttgart for a couple of years, until she was moved to Paris.

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