The Orangutan Story
London Zoo, London England
The summer after my sophomore year in college, I was an intern at the London Zoo. I had written letters to the head of the Board of the zoo for an entire school year. No one answered until I suspect they tired of me because someone finally wrote back and said I could come volunteer. They did not have internships but I continued to call my position an internship. I remember every detail of the morning I walked up to the employee gate. Even though I was barely greeted by a keeper, ushered in to a back office issued issued ill-fitting green fatigues, a pair of men’s black boots and sent directly to clean an enclosure, I thought it was a very exciting start. I was given any job that any keeper didn’t mind handing off to me which meant mostly cleaning. I cleaned from morning until evening with brushes and brooms and giant water hoses, sometimes on my knees, on ladders and on and on. It wasn’t glorious to most but to me, I was near the animals and even feeling their eyes upon me as I cleaned gave me rush of excitement.
After a few days, I quickly made my way towards the primates. Anything chimpanzee, gorilla or orangutan was the passion behind my passion. Just walking past them in the mornings took my breath away. I had been a huge fan of Jane Goodall’s since I was a little girl. I imitated her voice and spoke about the chimpanzees of Gombe almost verbatim, with all the correct names of the chimps she observed and wrote about. I always made my family members laugh at the table when I would make the different chimpanzee calls. To me this was also serious business. Who wouldn’t want to learn everything possible about all animals and apes in particular? My absolute dream was that I would one day understand the great apes and they would teach me things no one else could.
The keepers took me in and shared their routines and taught me a lot about chimpanzees, orangutans and the gorillas. They were all men, large -framed and burly. They had tough exteriors but I remembered them to be kind and soft-hearted and very funny. /]/They keepers were all very seasoned with so many years of experience and understanding of those they cared for.
We would have coffee meetings in the morning in a tiny room that we shared with two golden marmosets, tiny 2lb bright orange monkeys with tiny curved nails. They would screech and jump from the top of one person’s head to another and it was hard to focus on anything anyone was saying, not knowing when this ping pong ball like creature would grab onto my ponytail and nestle along my neck and ear.
One fateful day a mother had raised her 3 yr old infant towards the bars of an enclosure to try to touch a chimp and the chimp had bitten the child’s hand – had bitten off some fingers to be exact. The group of chimps went into a spinning howling chaotic frenzy in response to the mother’s and child’s screaming - the chaos and animal screams throughout the zoo was horrific. I experienced first what it is like we forget the distinction between a wild animal and ourselves. When we lose our respect for nature and when we dishonor the animals that live by those rules.
Several weeks later, as my internship was drawing to a close, I had a remarkable experience that has stayed with me all this time. I was on my usual rounds shadowing the head keeper George and we were headed towards the orangutans for a feeding. I would typically help him prepare everything and he would feed them usually through the bars in a special room not visible to the public. He called me over and told me that as a little thank you for my hard work, I could feed the orangutans today. I was so excited. I had met this massive beautiful orangutan through the bars from only inches away and so I felt like we had met before and this would not be so different. The next thing I remember was the sudden realization, as I heard the giant door screeching closed behind me that I was on the other side of the enclosure, now on the same side as a giant orangutan! As the adrenaline coarsed through me I felt slightly disoriented and a kind of paralysis locked my legs for a moment and I remember the first sense that brought me to attention and this was my sense of smell, I smelled a powerful smell of a large animal. It was musty and humid and so unfamiliar that I had no reference point, further disorienting me. I could not run or hide or even back up. I remember the feeling of wanting this experience, wanting to have all the sensations, the memories of what was about to happen as though I knew it would change me – wanting this more than giving in to the fear of the moment.
I took one step forward and understood instantly that I was completely helpless. I heard George’s voice from behind me say “take a breath”. It was as though I had come back online and the bug in my ear had been turned on. He told me to slowly drop to my knees and as I began to drop down I caught Bulu’s eyes and started to stare at her. “Don’t stare” said George. Say “hello”, said the voice. “hello”. Oh my God! She is huge! When I am on my knees, her long orange hair drapes to the floor and she is towering over me not just in stature but in presence. Her head is massive and her arms seem at least three times longer than mine and while we are about 15 feet apart, she could easily reach out and grab me if she wanted. The details of her were so sharp and while I had spent hours looking at her everyday, I felt as though I was only seeing all the details of her for the first time. My eyes were sharper, my sense of smell so acute, I could feel air entering my nostrils, my ears seemed to pick on everything, my body was tingling everywhere. I had entered into a special zone, I would later understand to be a rarified and sacred space.
Her juvenile son, Jago moved towards me and grabbed my arm. I remember feeling astonished at the strength not only of his grip but his entire arm; that it would be little effort for my arm to be completely pulled off me with a small tug. This is a wild, wild animal with far greater than human strength. I made this mental note. I could easily be killed in this meeting and it could be far from intentional, even playful and innocent. I felt waves of panic moving though me.
Jago went back towards his mother and she and I now sat directly facing each other and we seem to into each other’s gaze. By settle I mostly mean I began to breathe a bit more regularly. She seemed ready for me to offer her the contents of what was in the big white pale I had brought in with me. George told me to hand her a grape. I robotically reached into the bucket with out taking my eyes of her and gently extended my arm in front of her, hoping to keep my arm intact, wondering if I was making a proper offering – not doing something wrong that might be rude to her. I felt a little numb at this point, as if in a bit of a trance. Her eyes were piercing into me and made me feel unlike any other set of eyes had ever made me feel. They went deeper into me, as though she were engaging with a part of me that no one had ever met before.
My mind was also racing at the same time. I remember thinking, how do I feed this magnificent creature properly, for her? In a way that respects her notion of what is polite, appropriate for me, the human, to not offend? What a odd time to be focused on how to respect this animal - when I am also fearing for my life, wanting simply to not upset her. But somehow reverence was the focus.
I had not met, along my spiritual walk/in my life, my Qigong master, the native American medicine chief, the avatar I visited in India – all great master healers who would instill in me a sense of wanting to be reverent in every action towards them, and later all beings, humans or animals. They would allow me to experience how great their love was in the world and for me. My encounter with this orangutan, was the first glimpse of meeting another being, who, by nature of who she was, and the love she was already showing me, naturally guided me to wanting to be more aware and attuned to communing with her in the most loving way possible. She represented a bigger love than just me and her.
She smelled the grape and placed it in her mouth. I was mesmerized by how she swooshed it all around as though it were an elaborate feast. I watched her lips move in the most adept and intricate ways and at the same time, her eyes looking at every inch of me
She then pushed the grape back out until it rested delicately between the very tips of her upper an lower lips and then she let the grape, now miraculously peeled, fall into her cupped hand. It was like a magic trick. She then extended her hand right in front of me. What do I do now? My mind raced again. “Eat it” said George. As he must of known I was hardly understood English at this point, he clarified his instructions, “place it in your mouth”. For me? For me from this beautiful, glowing , magnificent giant orange beast. A gift? How? Why? I felt as though parts of me were melting on the inside. I ate the grape. As I write this, I connect to a similar overwhelming love I have felt receiving the Eucharist during mass. There is a powerful love in the offering and it has the power to transform me as it enters me.
She then reached for my hand and sandwiched it gently between her two hands, I saw the long hairy fingers coming close to my face and her dark fingernails. She is not human, I do not recognize her dark and wrinkly fingers, the long yellow fingernails. But I know she comes in peace and I am transported. She lifts my clammy hand right up to her face and smells it. She smelled me – she breathed me in and closed her eyes for a moment. I don’t remember breathing at all in these moments. I remember feeling that my life and more importantly my heart was in her hands. She let my hand go and we looked at each other. I have given myself over without having made any decisions to do so. She was simply more powerful than me in her Being ness – in her understanding. I was the little one.
At some point after I handed her most of the food items in the bucket, she reached for her infant who had somehow stayed behind her large body all this time and she officially introduced her to me. George was silent. No instructions. I hesitantly looked at the baby, and I dared not smile and knew not to touch it. And then the baby was hidden behind her again. Thank you I thought. You have a beautiful baby. I will not harm it. I want to do everything right for you. What else have you to show me? I never want to leave here.
It felt as though she was done with me. I’m not sure how I knew this. I remember George’s faithful voice, my lifeline back to earth and humanity, saying I should slowly get up and walk backwards towards the door. As I moved, I remember casting my eyes down at the ground as one does when backing out the door of an emperor like I had seen in the movies. I had ever done that, but it just felt right not because I was fearing my safety any longer but as an expression of my respect, and, another feeling I would not have identified at the time, that of gratitude. I remember hugging George with great enthusiasm on the other side of the door, leaving him a bit startled and frozen in place and then wandering around the zoo the rest of the day in a complete stupor and a smile that would not leave me. At the time, an energetic young woman of 20, I likened it to the morning after being kissed by some boy I really liked – only more.
To this day I cannot describe exactly what happened, how it felt and how I was changed. But everything changed. It was as though a glimpse was allowed me of what is real as opposed to unreal. How all beings are connected, how the animals know far more than us. How we are in fact asleep unless we wake up and pay attention to the symphony around us, as my martial arts teacher would always say. Bulu told me that day that she loved me without reservation. She might kill me swiftly if I threatened her child or acted inappropriately, but she also respected me and tolerated me out of love. The greater order of the universe, that she knew about, held me also. It was a great love. While I did not have the language for what happening to me, I now know I learned humility before a wise living and sentient being. I received Grace, I was in the presence of Spirit. I was being prepared and taught.
And my dream from when I was a little girl to have an encounter with an animal that would teach me about the great mysteries of the universe had come true.