Indianapolis Zoo's orangutan Azy watches visitors watching him — Photo courtesy of Jackie Sheckler Finch
Azy the orangutan slowly ambles through an open door at Indianapolis' zoo and flops on a large seat, watching the computer screen in front of him. Azy also eyes Dr. Robert Shumaker through a huge observation window in an adjoining room and patiently waits for symbols to appear on the computer screen.
Then the action starts.
Dr. Robert Shumaker and Azy work on computer exercises — Photo courtesy of Jackie Sheckler Finch
Azy identifies numbers on the computer screen, arranges them in numerical order and presses a “send” button on the computer to share the answer with Shumaker. For every right answer, Azy gets an apple slice. If wrong, he knows to try again.
“He is doing exceedingly well today,” Shumaker says, after Azy has aced 10 exercises. Azy and the other orangutans can choose to participate in computer exercises and leave when they want.
However, the goal of the new $26 million Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center at the Indianapolis Zoo is not to impress visitors with the computer skills of the eight orangutans who now live there. The project was designed for a far more important purpose.
“We want to make people care about a species on the verge of extinction,” says Shumaker, vice president of Life Sciences at the zoo and a foremost orangutan expert.
Shumaker first met Azy about 30 years ago, and the two have formed a bond and friendship after working together over the years.
Azy watches over his kingdom at the Indy Zoo — Photo courtesy of Jackie Sheckler Finch
”Hopefully, what people see here will make them feel compelled to protect the future of a species that is on track to become the first great ape species to become extinct,” Shumaker says, noting that destruction of habitat is the main threat to orangutan survival.
Orangutans are capable of learning and using language, as well as solving problems; that is not surprising, Shumaker says, since orangutans and human beings share 97% of the same DNA. No wonder their name means "people of the forest" in the Malay language.
It's thrilling to come face to face with orangutans and realize that they are watching visitors as much as visitors are watching them.
“Look into the eyes of an orangutan, and you see a sentient being looking back,” Shumaker says.
The new Indianapolis Zoo exhibit “provides a phenomenal quality of life for the orangutans that live here,” Shumaker says.
All of the orangutans at the Indy Zoo were born in captivity and could not survive in the wild.
Rocky interacts with a visitor — Photo courtesy of Jackie Sheckler Finch
Larger than two NFL football fields, the overall land area for the new zoo facility in White River State Park is designed to give the orangutans room to roam or to find quiet spaces. Visitors can watch orangutans go through their computer paces, smile for cameras, swing from ladders and do other acrobatics.
The animals can move outdoors to an orangutan sidewalk in the sky, a series of cables, bridges and platforms rising 45 to 80 feet high. Visitors also can have a close encounter with orangutans over their heads by riding a new 1,200-foot-long Skyline on aerial cable cars.
Looking somewhat like a contemporary church with a steeple, the 150-foot-tall building where the orangutans can be seen has towers where the critters can climb and also can get away for privacy, if so desired.
The centerpiece of the center is the Nina Mason Pulliam Beacon of Hope. A towering 150-foot structure, the beacon is illuminated each night by lights, the color of which is controlled by the orangutans. Designed as a beautiful addition to the downtown Indy skyline, the Beacon of Hope also serves as a symbol and call to action.
“The future of the endangered orangutans rests with us all,” Shumaker adds. “If we don’t do something, orangutans might not be around for future generations.”