Monday, June 02, 2014

The Lady and the Orangutan

I had been meaning to revisit the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington DC for some time, and I could finally make it this Saturday. I had already been there twice, but this time there was a special reason for my visit. This reason was Bao Bao, the baby giant panda born at the DC zoo nine months ago. The Chinese government supplies giant pandas to zoos all over the world with the condition that any cubs born would have to be returned to China. This happened with the first cub born at the zoo. My first visit to the DC zoo was a few days after baby Tai Shan had left for China. This time I did not want to miss the opportunity to photograph the cub, especially since I was one of the people who had helped to choose her name over an Internet poll (Bao Bao means "treasure," you can see her live here).

The zoo visit went well. Bao Bao and her mom Mei Xiang posed for photos. The other animals behaved as expected, except the gorillas, all of whom decided to sit facing away from the visitors. But then I saw something else, also at the ape house, which became the highlight of my zoo visit.

The room was large having one glass wall, with one occupant - a large female orangutan named Lucy. As I approached the room, I noticed a crowd in front of the glass wall and went in further to investigate. I first saw the orangutan sitting just inside, face pressed against the glass, staring intently at something outside. Then I saw the lady, sitting near my feet, just outside the glass, facing Lucy. She had placed a rubber frog on the ledge outside the glass and was now carefully adorning it with a strip of paper. Lucy was watching her intently, mesmerized by the colourful objects. As I watched, the lady opened her handbag and took out some small objects, while talking to the ape all the time. I'm sure the orangutan could not hear her, but she seemed interested all the same.

The lady took out some colorful nail files and proceeded to unwrap them with great care. she peeled off the price tags and stuck them on Lucy's glass wall. Then she turned around and apologized to us. "I know this place is a little crowded, but please excuse me. If I get up, she will leave. I know her since the last ten years." She was surrounded by curious children and adults.

Then the lady took out some blush and applied it to her face. This was followed by lipstick and eyeliner. Each time she pretended to apply the stuff to Lucy's face through the glass as well after she was finished herself. Lucy seemed to enjoy all this immensely, but some of the adult humans around us were smirking. One woman seemed positively disturbed, and she made some snide remark about people being crazy and left with her children. I sneaked as close as possible through the crowd and tried to take photos of the whole thing, but only managed to take a few photos with my cellphone, and a close-up of the ape's hand which looked very similar to a human's.

By now the lady had used a hairbrush on her own and Lucy's head and was now applying some sunscreen lotion to her hand. I finally left and proceeded to a different window to take photos from another angle. Soon, the lady got up and left. Sure enough, Lucy also walked away from the glass wall and left the room.

When the lady came out of the ape house, she was talking to another visitor who was interested in her story. "I have been visiting her for the last ten years," she said. "She likes to come sit near me and watch me put on make-up. She can recognize me in a crowd and comes to the glass as soon as she sees me. People think I'm crazy, looking like a clown applying make-up in public."

I didn't think she was crazy of course. I only thought that the orangutan had managed to capture one out of the thousands of humans who come to see her in captivity, and had trained the human to do tricks for her. I considered myself lucky that I was able to witness this beautiful relationship.