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Why not simply swing on down to the food kiosk for some hot chips? (Image: Tina Tiller)
Why not simply swing on down to the food kiosk for some hot chips? (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyMarch 23, 2024

It looks so easy for the orangutans to escape Auckland Zoo. Why don’t they?

Why not simply swing on down to the food kiosk for some hot chips? (Image: Tina Tiller)
Why not simply swing on down to the food kiosk for some hot chips? (Image: Tina Tiller)

Visitors to Auckland Zoo can walk directly beneath orangutans swinging on a network of high ropes – but what’s stopping the great apes from dropping down and making a great escape? Alex Casey finds out. 

From their aerial pathway at Auckland Zoo, the orangutans can see across the suburbs of central Auckland and all the way out to the Waitematā Harbour. In the nearby habitats, they can perve on the rhino, the giraffes, the Galapagos tortoises. And directly below them, they can see humans, staring agape, wondering why these great apes don’t simply drop to the ground, pop on a bow tie and start a new life for themselves like Dunston in Dunston Checks In. 

Visitors to Auckland Zoo in the last few years will be familiar with the thrilling area where the orangutan pathways above cross the human footpath below. Signage warns those on foot to exercise caution when under the top ropes: “What’s up? If it’s an orangutan or siamang, please don’t stand directly underneath.” For those of us who have watched too many Planet of the Apes movies, it really seems like they are just one giant leap away from taking over civilisation. 

Amy Robbins, deputy curator of mammals at Auckland Zoo, listened politely to my concerns before calmly giving her verdict. “The orangutans absolutely will not, under any circumstances, throw themselves from that high down onto someone or the ground,” she said. But what about if someone below is holding a delicious hot dog? “They are very well fed”. But what if one of them gets an almighty fright and lets go? “There’s no chance all.” 

“Orangutans are so perfectly in tune and adapted to an arboreal lifestyle that they are meant to always be living above the ground,” she explained. “In the wild, usually they only fall if one of the branches that they’re holding breaks.” Combining the fact that the “O-lines” (orangutan lines) contain thick steel cables, plus the 20 metre drop below, plus that they are one of the most intelligent species on Earth, Robbins is adamant that us wide-eyed zoo visitors are safe. 

Charlie, just hanging out. (Photo: Auckland Zoo)

With nearly two decades experience with the primates at Auckland Zoo, Robbins was one of the experts consulted with during the years-long project to bring the aerial habitat to life. “You’ll never design an enclosure for an animal that is more challenging than an orangutan,” she said. “They’ve evolved over millions of years in an environment that has perfectly adapted them to life in the trees, so they hardly ever come to the ground in the wild.” 

The aerial pathway was always part of the vision, allowing the four orangutans (and two siamang) to move freely through a habitat that mimicked the rainforest canopy, while also giving visitors a new perspective. “In traditional zoo settings, orangutans live in homocentric, horizontally organised environments that are designed to cater to ease of maintenance, and also to display them well,” she explained. “So visitors used to look down on them.”

Now the orangutans look down on us. (Photo: Auckland Zoo)

By shifting the vantage point, Robbins says visitors experience the “wow” factor and the orangutans can live better and more enriched lives. “They all go up there, but Charlie, our adult male, likes it the most,” she said. “He’ll often just take himself up, particularly on a sunny day, and just sit at the top of one of the towers looking out over people – he really gets a lot out of it.” Two-year-old Bahmi is just starting to explore the ropes, when “helicopter mum” Melur lets him. 

While their “big long, hook shaped hands” ensure they stay up where they belong, Robbins admits there is another bodily function that they can’t entirely control – toileting. “It’s not like it happens often,” she laughed. “Or that they are waiting to go up there to then go to the toilet on people.” The “very rare” times that there have been aerial evacuations, Robbins said it was a “non event” thanks to a vigilant team of volunteers who are armed with clean-up kits. 

And if an orangutan was to ever bless you with a skyward secretion? “It’s good luck,” laughed Robbins. “I certainly would be buying a Lotto ticket if it happened to me.” 

Finally, Robbins reiterated once more that years of thought and planning went into the orangutan habitat, and that the whole team has the “utmost confidence” that the orangutans are not going to drop. “Everything was well thought out in terms of both animal welfare, animal behaviour and visitor safety,” she assured. “I wouldn’t say no to Charlie coming home with me, but we are definitely not going to have a Planet of the Apes situation at Auckland Zoo.” 

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