I had the pleasure of meeting Sam while working as a ‘daily forest release’ intern at the OFI Care Center and Quarantine in the village of Pasir Panjang in Indonesian Borneo.
During my first month in this volunteer position, I spent a lot of time getting to know the orangutans while they spent evenings and days off in their sleeping cages. Sam, a juvenile male orangutan, shares his cage with fellow orphan Victor, and I can understand why the OFI care givers have made these two roommates. They have many similar characteristics and habits when it comes to food. They both eat very slow and are are incredibly fussy. OFI staff always prepare special, tempting, high-nutrition food for these two because they are a little underweight. I helped deliver these special offerings in hopes of connecting with Sam and Victor.
The first thing I noticed about Sam was that he often walks in circles in his cage. This type of repetitive or ritualistic movement is called stereotypy. Stereotypies may be movements as simple as body rocking, crossing and uncrossing of legs, marching in place and self-caressing. Sometimes, animals in captivity who have undergone trauma and or have not fully adjusted to their living conditions (which most orangutan orphans experience, after being rudely snatched from the wild and their mothers) exhibit stereotypical behaviors as a form of self-soothing. After watching Sam day after day walking in circles, I decided I wanted to work with him and Victor on forest release.
The first time I took Sam and Victor to the forest, they separated. Victor stayed close to the OFI care givers on the boardwalk and Sam disappeared into the forest. I quickly learned that, in contrast to the more sociable Victor, Sam favours a select few of the OFI care givers. This day, he was interested in following Pak Ipin, who was digging up termite nests from the forest floor. When Sam received his nest from Pak Ipin, he sat quietly in the same spot for over an hour eating it. Orangutans open termite nests with their teeth. Sam is a master at this exercise. Watching him gently opening the nest to carefully extract the delicious termites inside, for me, seemed like meditation. Over his hour of feeding, I left him once to go check on Victor who was quite a distance away. When I came back I had trouble finding Sam… He was being so quiet! Normally when orangutans are biting a termite nest open an onserver can hear the crunching sound clearly; it sounds like someone cracking nuts open with a nut cracker. In contrast, Sam was so gentle with his nest, he barely made a sound. Even when he changed position a few meters away fro me, he didn’t make a sound. I knew I had to keep both eyes on him if I didn’t want to lose him!
The first time I actually lost Sam, I simply got distracted. Talking with care givers for a few minutes was all the time Sam needed to quietly disappear. The great thing about having many orangutans out on release with many care givers is that we all help each other. If one is missing, we all call their name, listen for them swinging through the trees and search for him/her in the places they like to go. Usually it doesn’t take long to find the missing orangutan. Sam, on the other hand, can be on the ground right next to you as you walk by, and you don’t even notice. We searched for hours, calling and calling his name through the forest and swamp, getting tired and discouraged. Late in the afternoon, after all the care givers had taken all the other orangutans in already, a few of us were still out calling him. Finally, Pak Deri found him, playing in an old building all by himself. He looked tired. When we approached him and called him down, he came back to us without hesitation.
Over time, Sam, Victor and I started to develop a good bond. Once they discovered I could find them termite nests, they happily followed me. After watching me enough times, Sam learned to dig around the bottom of trees and find his own termite nests! When it was time to go home, these two gentle boys would climb on me, one on my back and one my front, without hesitation.
One day I had them both riding on me as we were leaving a very swampy area in the forest. My feet were sinking in to the wet forest floor and getting stuck in the mud. I slid into some dead logs and lost a shoe. Seeming to understand my predicament and the difficulty of their added weight, Sam and Victor both climbed down from hanging on to my body and walked themselves back the boardwalk. Once there, they waited for me to catch up. When I was back on the boardwalk with them, they climbed back on my body again for the walk home.
After 4 months of working with Sam I noticed him change a bit. He started climbing in the trees more, and playing with other orangutans regularly. His hair grew thicker and he gained some weight.
I also noted the occasions when I saw him walking in circles in his cage during our time together. In the beginning, I saw it every day. After 4 months, only once every 3 – 4 days on average.
I miss Sam’s little body on my back. He never once challenged me for food or acted aggressively. He liked to stay close by my side while we searched for termites together so he could see exactly what I was digging for. His gentle, quiet nature gives the impression that he has an ‘old soul’. If I had to pick a friend to travel and live with in the forest, I’d pick Sam.
I don’t know Sam’s history, where he came from or how he was captured. I dream he will one day see the big forest he was meant to grow up in.
I’d like to dedicate this story to Pak Ipin, an OFI care giver who recently passed away. He taught me how to find the orangutans’ forest food, including termite nests. He also always came to my aid when I had difficulty with orangutans when they were misbehaving. His compassion for the orangutans was truly inspiring. He had a wonderful way of making everyone feel safe, humans and orangutans. My heart goes out to his friends, family and the orangutans he cared for deeply. I am honored and extremely grateful to have known him for a short time. He will be missed and loved by so many. Thank you my friend, I will never forget you.