How is it possible that our youngest Bornean orangutan, Redd, is already celebrating his fifth birthday? It seems like yesterday Batang was carrying him on her shoulders across the O-Line because he was too young to climb the cables on his own.
Now, Redd is the master of the O-Line, eliciting gasps from staff and visitors alike as he hangs upside-down from his feet, tightrope walks across the cables or leaps from the cables onto the platform. Orangutans are skillful climbers; often, they are described as having four hands rather than what they actually have—two hands and two feet. Still, those of us who observe his O-Line travels (and are not quite as dexterous as orangutans) would breathe easier if he would hold on with more than one of his hands!
With age comes a bit of stubbornness, and Redd sometimes tests his mother, Batang. When Redd crosses from one tower to another, mom is never too far behind. That being said, when Batang wants to go one direction and Redd chooses the opposite, the debate works itself out 50 feet above the ground. Batang decides where she wants them to spend the night—either Great Ape House or Think Tank—and will push or pull Redd in that direction. Sometimes, she will even “pinch” his feet to keep him moving across the cables!
At 5 years old, Redd is 38 pounds and is all arms and legs. Orangutans are built for life in the trees. They spend most of their time in the canopies and only occasionally come down to the ground. Western lowland gorillas—like our stocky 3-year-old male, Moke—are built for a more land-dwelling lifestyle and prefer to travel on the ground. Moke may be 2 years younger than Redd, but he already weighs twice as much—75 pounds—and is full of muscle and mischief.
Redd still has a lot more growing to do, since young male orangutans develop slowly. Much like humans, orangutans experience a testosterone spike in their late teens that changes their outward appearance. Eventually, Redd will develop large cheek pads (called “flanges”), grow long hair and double in size compared to his mother. These secondary sexual characteristics are an easy way to distinguish adult male orangutans from females.
We are able to keep track of Redd’s growth through our positive reinforcement training program. All of our animals learn behaviors that allow us to monitor their health vitals and overall wellbeing. For example, we teach them to climb upon a scale, present their ear or show us their body parts. Respectively, these procedures allow us to obtain an individual’s weight, take their temperature or look for anything out of the ordinary that may require a veterinary exam. In other words, they enable us to determine what the normal, healthy range is for each individual animal. For voluntarily participating in these training sessions, the primates receive a favorite food—typically, grapes or nuts—as a reward.
Redd actively participates in training, though he is lightening fast and not very patient! To obtain his heart rate, we have trained him to place his fingers on a mobile electrocardiogram device. This year, we introduced a doppler with ultrasound gel as an alternative device for acquiring these readings. Getting this “kid” to hold still for the required 30 seconds is the hardest part. That said, he seems to enjoy these training sessions and picks up new behaviors very quickly. It’s safe to say he’s a smart little guy.
I usually train Redd first, as Batang is much more patient than he and waits her turn. When it comes time for me to train Batang, however, he will sometimes throw temper tantrums that are loud and intense! Batang is a star at training and will carry on doing the behaviors asked of her even while her son lets out shrill cries, throws himself down on the ground and stomps around. Instead of coddling him, she will push Redd away with her foot as she continues to train.
Redd’s temper tantrums seem to intensify when he doesn’t get his way. He can be very dramatic and certainly competes for the spotlight! When he is very tired, cranky or has ben disciplined by another orangutan, he will nurse for comfort.
The relationship between Redd and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s adult orangutans continues to develop and delight everyone that witnesses their interactions. His “aunties”—Lucy, Bonnie and Iris—continue to dote on Redd and almost always oblige whenever he wants to wrestle or play.
Over the past year, it has been fascinating to watch Redd’s relationship strengthen with our adult males, Kyle (his father) and Kiko. Kyle seems to enjoy keeping an eye on what the other orangutans and his keepers are doing, so he spends much of his time on the move. Because of this, the playful moments between him and Redd are harder to catch. When you do witness them, though, they are spectacular.
Kyle is a great playmate for Redd. He will let Redd grab ahold of his cheek pads in one moment, then playfully nip at his son’s hands and feet and flip him around in the next. Kyle weighs about 200 pounds more than Redd, so whenever they play our little orangutan is practically swallowed up by Kyle, lost in all of his long hair.
Kiko’s lifestyle is much more laid back and sedate. That being said, he does not seem to have the same level of patience that Kyle has for Redd’s antics. For some reason, Redd seems to enjoy hanging right over top of Kiko while he is eating and staring at him just inches away from his mouth. Kiko is mostly tolerant of this. But, if Redd makes a risky move and tries to take something out of Kiko’s mouth, Kiko will quickly shoo him away with a wave of his immense hand. If the hand swat lands just right, Redd will whimper and seek out Batang for comfort. Minutes later, he will be right back at it again.
Just a few weeks ago, I would have said that Redd was mostly a nuisance to Kiko. However, while I was locking up one night, I got a different perspective on their relationship. Kiko had settled into his nest for the evening, but Redd, being young and full of energy, wanted to play. To my surprise—and Redd’s delight—Kiko finally indulged him!
One way that you can join our primate party and celebrate Redd’s birthday is by sharing Redd’s story and inspiring others to care for and about orangutans. Redd is an amazing ambassador for his species, and we hope that by visiting him at the Zoo and reading about him in these updates that you feel a deeper connection to these magnificent, critically endangered great apes. In your quest to learn more about orangutans, however, be mindful of the content you like and share on social media.
Videos or photos that depict these and other wild animals as pets, dressed in clothes, being “tickled” or posing with people usually come at an immense cost to the animals. They may have been illegally taken from their native habitats as part of the pet trade; and, they likely do not have the proper care that meets their environmental, social or nutritional needs. Unless the content comes from an accredited zoo or sanctuary, refrain from sharing it. Together, we can all do our part to support animal welfare and conservation.
Want to learn more about how the Smithsonian’s National Zoo cares for orangutans? Check out a training session with Lucy in Erin Stromberg’s update How Do You Give Medicine to Zoo Animals. And, go behind-the-scenes with primate keeper Emily Bricker to find out what a day in the life of an orangutan keeper is like!