Captive orangutans: enriching bodies, minds, and lives

By: Jessica Parker, Enrichment Intern and Janie Dubman, OFI writer, special to mongabay.com.
July 22, 2010

Visitors to the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ) are always delighted by the sight of playful young orangutans. Hairy orange youngsters swinging through the branches or tossing balls around always induce fits of cooing and camera clicking. These activities appear to be so natural that it is easy to forget these are orphans in rehabilitation school and one of the main classes is Enrichment. The term enrichment has become a catchword in the world of captive animal husbandry in the past few years and for many organizations, enrichment has become a new focus as more and more research reveals how critical enrichment is to the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of captive animals.

Enrichment is designed to improve the quality of captive animal life through the provision of novel objects and manipulation of their external environment. Enrichment keeps animals both mentally and physically stimulated in order to prevent boredom and depression and the development of obsessive compulsive behaviors like turning in circles, pacing, and self mutilation. Enrichment stimulates natural behaviors like play, foraging, problem solving, and social interaction between group members. Captive primates in particular thrive in conditions that mimic the complex socio-ecological challenges they have been faced with in the wild for millions of years. Conversely, they suffer more acutely in captivity when their external environment does not provide enough activities to engage the brain as it would be in the wild. For rehabilitation centers like the OCCQ, enrichment plays a particularly important role because it is an invaluable part of the learning process through which young orangutans acquire the skills needed to survive in the wild.

Karbank demonstrates how important forest outings are for learning how to find and process wild foods. Photo courtesy of OCCQ.
For the majority of orangutans in the rehabilitation program at the OCCQ, the most important enrichment that we can give them are daily trips to the surrounding 80 hectare forest. In the forest, the rehabilitants learn and practice the skills vital to their survival in the wild: locomotion, identification and processing of wild foods, nest building, and social interaction. Having the opportunity to explore, forage, and play encourages independence, learning, and intellectual development. In fact, these daily jungle outings are enjoyed to such an extent by the orangutans that the areas of forest where they play quickly turn into demolition zones from their rambunctious treetop games.

The two primary types of enclosure enrichment that are utilized at the OCCQ are emotional and cognitive. Emotional enrichment is provided to the young orangutans who have been emotionally traumatized by the loss of their mothers. The infants and young juveniles are held, cuddled, and caressed to simulate the intimate bond they would have had with their mothers in the wild; baby orangutans physically remain on their mother's body for the first few years of their life and she is the source of all emotional nurturing and attachment in the wild. Female caregivers serve, therefore, as surrogate mothers, by providing emotional security until the young orangutans begin to mature. The use of surrogate caregivers is a critical part of the rehabilitation process because it instills psychological stability and competence in the younger orangutans, increasing the likelihood of successful rehabilitation later on.

The local Enrichment coordinator, Ibu Mariyanti, and Jessica, Enrichment Intern, hang up a tire hammock for Sam to play with, sleep in and apparently, use as a chew toy. Photo courtesy of OCCQ.
Cognitive enrichment at the OCCQ is a multifaceted endeavor to provide a mentally stimulating environment through a combination of natural and artificial items. Every day, fresh acacia branches are given to the orangutans for nesting, foraging, and playing. Swings, ladders, and hammocks made out of recycled tires are hung in enclosures to encourage physical activity through play. These often serve as a mental stimulator as well since the residents spend a great deal of time trying to work out how to dismantle the enrichment items. Small objects used for enrichment include locally produced rattan balls that are stuffed with peanuts and raisins. Peanut butter smeared on the inside of PVC pipes encourages the production and use of stick tools to extract the treat. Burlap and rice sacks and towels are given to provide warmth, comfort, and amusement. They can serve as hats, sleeping bags, seat cushions, and cloaks according to individual preference. Finally, edible fresh browse is gathered from the forest to provide additional nutrients and increased exposure to wild foods. To make objects even more enriching, they are placed in and around the enclosures so that the orangutans have to figure out how to acquire them before they get to use them. For example, branches are placed under, on top of, and hanging from the sides of the enclosures, requiring dexterous manipulation to bring them inside. After nests have been constructed, raisins, peanuts, and flowers can be hidden among the leaves and around the enclosure, creating a miniature scavenger hunt for the orangutans.

Enrichment is a very valuable tool for rehabilitation and serves the dual purpose of keeping residents physically active and mentally stimulated while preparing them for life in the wild. It also presents us with an opportunity to study captive orangutan behavior, monitor health and physical condition, and assess rehabilitation progress. Enrichment gives us a chance to be both observers and participants in the ancient and complex process of infant orangutans learning to be successful and independent 'People of the Forest'.

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By: Jessica Parker, Enrichment Intern and Janie Dubman, OFI writer, special to mongabay.com. (July 22, 2010).

Captive orangutans: enriching bodies, minds, and lives.