Elijah, an imposing 330-pound male orangutan with a sweet face, opens his mouth, turns around, and reaches his arms in the air upon command. But he’s reluctant to put his arm in a plastic sleeve that keeps it still for a blood draw. Two of Hogle zoo’s great ape keepers, Bobbi Gordon and Erin Jones, gently coax him and offer him fruit treats. Eventually their patience and persistence pay off. He cooperates.
“Since we can’t pick them up like we can our dog and cat and take them to the vet, we have to train them to make sure we can get a good look at them everyday,” says Gordon. The apes are trained to allow and assist the zookeepers with brushing their teeth, weighing them, and performing voluntary injections and ultrasounds when necessary.
The caretakers can’t afford to let any aspect of these health checks slide. It was through a routine training session that they first identified a lump in Elijah’s right breast in 2011. This was an astute observation considering he is the only male orangutan known to have breast cancer. He has since gone through two surgeries to remove cancerous tissue, most recently this past summer.
“Through his training we are able to monitor his whole body to look for recurrences of tumors or lumps, and check his behavior to see if he isn’t feeling good during the day,” says Gordon. “It’s been a crucial aspect of his diagnosis and treatment.” Elijah’s cancer is slow growing, and his prognosis is good.
More than for their physical well being, training also keeps the great apes mentally stimulated. “They’re very smart animals,” explains Gordon. “They really like to learn, they really like to be challenged.”
Nothing brings that message home quite like seeing Elijah huddled with his daughter Acara, both glued to a YouTube video that’s playing on an iPad held by Gordon. The non-profit organization Orangutan Outreach provides iPads for orangutans in zoos throughout the country. “When they [patrons] see them, say, using a drawing program on the iPad that they would use, it helps the public start that conversation of how smart these guys are and how important they are to save in the wild,” explains Gordon.
The genomes of humans and orangutans are 97% similar, making them one of the most closely related species to our own. Perhaps in part because the apes are so similar to humans, the zookeepers can’t help but forge an emotional bond with them. “They are my family to a degree,” says Jones. “That relationship is incredibly important to me.” Their office, with windows that peer into the great ape enclosure, is decorated with framed photographs and posters of the very animals they see nearly everyday.
Jones continues with a smile, “I do everything in my power to make sure that they have an awesome day."