This update was written by primate keeper Erin Stromberg.
Today marks our youngest Bornean orangutan’s third birthday—and what an exciting year it has been! Redd has always been brimming with personality, but in the last six months or so our primate team has started to see his adventurous and independent streak more and more.
On any given day, Redd is on the move, cramming in as many activities as he possibly can. From playing with enrichment toys and investigating puzzle feeders, to working with keepers on behaviors that help us ensure he is healthy, to vying for the attention of the adults in his social circle—Redd keeps quite busy! Only when the sun sets does he begin to settle down and go to sleep. He is full of curiosity, and it is clear from the looks on visitors’ faces that they are just as enamored with this ball of energy as those of us who work with him everyday.
Some of Redd’s most impressive acrobatics take place in the middle of the Zoo. In the wild, orangutans spend the majority of their time in the trees—sleeping, eating and moving from place to place. One way we simulate their natural behavior of swinging through the trees is with the O-Line. It is a system of 50-foot-tall towers and ropes that connect the Great Ape House to the Think Tank. On fair-weather days, the orangutans can choose to either travel the O-Line or remain wherever they spent the night before.
Over the summer, Redd debuted his fanciest moves yet while crossing the O-Line. One of his go-to methods of locomotion is to do “cartwheels” across the ropes. He starts by grabbing the rope with his hands, then his feet, then his hands again, and so on. Many orangutans traverse the treetops using brachiation—a hand-over-hand technique that enables them to swing with ease from branch to branch. One of our adult male orangutans, 31-year-old Kiko, is famous for using this technique on the O-Line, eliciting lots of “oohs” and “ahhs” from the visitors watching below. Redd is shaping up to be a master at brachiating, so Kiko may have some competition in that department soon!
Like all orangutans, Redd is an excellent climber. His mother, 22-year-old Batang, seems comfortable with him shimmying up the O-Line towers and onto the ropes without assistance, though she never lets him get too far ahead of her. If she wants to cross more quickly than he does—or if he tries to travel in the opposite direction of where she wants to go—she will plop him on her back and carry him across. At 23 pounds, Redd is just a tiny bit heavier than our western lowland gorilla infant, Moke, who is only 1.5 years old. Gorilla infants are built like little tanks, while orangutan infants are mostly long arms and hair!
One of the best aspects of my job is being able to watch Redd interact with the adult orangutans. Whenever Redd is around, they are so playful and goofy, it is almost as though they have turned back into youngsters themselves!
Redd had different relationships with each of the adults, but, by far, his interactions with 46-year-old Lucy have changed the most since he was small. These days, Batang is much more comfortable with Lucy being around Redd and hardly holds onto him when the three of them are together outside. While Lucy and Redd romp and play in the yard, Batang can be seen sitting far away, having some alone time. The bond between Lucy and Redd has grown quite a bit this year, and it will be exciting to see how their relationship evolves as he gets older.
Batang and Redd’s relationship is much like that of any mother-infant duo. When things are not going Redd’s way, or if Batang won’t share her treats with him, he will throw a big temper tantrum, crying and flailing about in an overly dramatic way. For her part, Batang alternates between appeasing Redd (and, yes, occasionally sharing her treats with him) and letting him pout. She can be his best playmate, somersaulting and wrestling for long periods. At other times, she seems quite happy to let one of his “aunties”—Bonnie, Iris and Lucy—play with Redd while she enjoys some quiet time. In between the ups and downs are many sweet mother-and-son moments where they embrace and share some quality bonding time together, just the two of them.
As mentioned in a previous update, Redd and Batang are currently taking part in a study that looks at how mother-infant dyads use gestures to communicate with one another within a certain range of special proximity. Some of the gestures our team has documented between Redd and Batang include “embracing” (wrapping their arms around each other), “reaching” (when one extends his or her arm to the other with an open palm) and biting (during play sessions when they are wrestling). Our western lowland gorilla mother Calaya and her son Moke also participate in this study. The Zoo is truly fortunate to have two little great apes—one of each species—and to have the opportunity to watch them grow and learn about the world around them.
In fact, a large part of Redd’s play with the adults consists of play biting, pulling hair and wrestling. For Batang, a break from this roughhousing is welcome on most days! Luckily, 42-year-old Bonnie and 32-year-old Iris are wonderful “aunties” and are more than willing to play with Redd and dote on him.
Redd seems to get his dramatic side from his father, 22-year-old Kyle, who will often “display” and produce long calls to show off and let everyone know his whereabouts. Whenever Batang and Redd are sharing an enclosure with Kyle, Batang will keep a tight grasp on one of Redd’s arms or legs when Kyle is around so she can quickly move him out of the way if a display is imminent. Before Kyle came to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, he grew up around several infant and juvenile orangutans. I’m optimistic that he and Redd will eventually become best buddies. However, that all depends on how comfortable Batang is! It may be some time before she is ready for that to happen.
Interestingly, Batang is increasingly more comfortable letting Redd interact with Kiko, who is remarkably tolerant. Sometimes, Redd tries to push his luck by trying to get close enough to swipe at or grab Kiko’s puzzle feeders. Kiko just swats Redd away with the back of his hand.
Redd is very enthusiastic about the enrichment toys, treats and puzzle feeders keepers scatter around the enclosure. The question is whether or not the adults are willing to share! Because he is small, Redd’s enrichment could easily be stolen by one of the larger orangutans if they choose to claim the item or treat as their own. Sometimes, our adult females can be persuaded to share if Redd throws a temper tantrum. Being the daredevil that he is, some of Redd’s favorite enrichment items include crates and water troughs that he can stand on top of and jump off or into. With such stiff competition from the adults, he also tends to seek out smaller items—like kong toys with a smear of peanut butter inside—that he can easily run away with and keep for himself. On any given day, the orangutans receive between six and eight kinds of enrichment to keep them physically active and their minds sharp. So, the odds that he will have enrichment items to play with are in his favor.
One of my favorite memories of working with Redd this past year was training him to voluntarily receive vaccines via injection and take his temperature with an ear thermometer. He was so brave and never even flinched!
He continues to excel in positive reinforcement training. Now, I can also take his heart rate and oxygen saturation using a pulse oximeter that goes on his finger. He has no problem sticking his finger in the device or having it close down. The most challenging part is getting him to hold still for a few seconds so that it can take a proper reading! As far as husbandry behaviors go, we are still working on opening his mouth on cue, as well as presenting his chest so we can listen to his heart with a stethoscope. These are behaviors that all of the adults know and will help us to better monitor his health. When he does the behavior asked of him correctly, I reward him with small pieces of grapes. He receives small pieces so that he stays focused on the training session without getting too full.
Those that have closely followed our #OrangutanStory over the years may recall that Redd is helping his counterparts in the wild by participating in an orangutan tooth study. The database helps those that are caring for young orphaned orangutans in their native habitats to provide age-appropriate care and nutrition. As of spring 2018, Redd had his complete set of deciduous teeth. He will remain in the tooth study until all of his permanent teeth come in. Now that he has a full set of baby teeth, I am looking for the development of his first adult molar, which usually emerges when orangutans are 3.5 or 4 years old. Around 8 years old, he will begin losing his baby teeth to make room for his adult permanent teeth.
Now that cooler weather is upon us, the orangutans will be spending lots of time outside. In planning your visit, look for Redd in the Great Ape House or Think Tank outdoor yards or showing off his acrobatics on the O-Line. We hope to see you at the Zoo this fall!
Can’t get enough of Redd? Follow keeper updates on the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s website using the hashtag #OrangutanStory. Daily keeper talks take place at 11:30 a.m. at Think Tank and 1 p.m. at the Great Ape House. Don’t miss a special research presentation at Think Tank at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesdays through the beginning of December.