IN WASHINGTON THEY LIVE PAMPERED, well-fed and protected from the dangers of their native turf, peering down at the ordinary folk, with the ever-present possibility that they’ll do much worse.
But enough about Congress. (Ba-da-boom!) These carefree swingers are the nine orangutans at the National Zoo, who, much to their delight, have finally gotten cable. Or, more precisely, two cables, 400 feet long and elevated 45 feet in the air over an open pedestrian walkway. Part of an elaborate new habitat, the high-wire “O Line” allows people to gawk and the apes to do what comes naturally. This does not deter visitors, but it does cause many of them to move smartly as they pass underneath. The orangutans, native to Borneo and Sumatra, are “incredible fun to watch,” says Susan Dawson, a mother of two from Herndon, Va. “It’s a risk worth taking.”
“We wanted to create a positive, compelling, interesting situation for the orangutans that would allow them to use their bodies the way they’re designed to be used,” says biologist Rob Shumaker, who has also launched the apes on the information highway. The O Line terminates at a just-opened facility called the Think Tank, where primates can engage in rudimentary conversations with scientists, using simple symbols on a computer keyboard. As the organgutans become more adept at problem solving, they will be rewarded with tokens that can be used in vending machines to redeem food and toys (but not, alas, at Banana Republic). “An economy will emerge that provides opportunities to save, share and steal,” says Shumaker, clearly delighted by the implications.
Solving the problem of interspecies interactivity may be a lot easier, though, than teaching the orangutans human notions of hygiene and courtesy. No visitor has reported being scatalogically insulted yet, but, says Dr. Benjamin Beck, associate director for biological programs, “if it happens, we’ll deal with it.”
Meanwhile, though, visitors might consider wearing a hat—and leaving the good suit at home.