Simon Among the Simians

 The Gustavus students took a Saturday field trip to the mainland, coordinated by one of the Tropical Ecology lecturers, Nadine Ruppert, a primatologist.  Joel, Simon, and I were very excited to come along, too.  Dr. Ruppert also was accompanied by two of her graduate students and her three little boys.

We visited two zoos in one day: first was Bukit Merah’s Orang Utan Island.  (I love the name; it sounds like something from a Scooby Doo mystery.) This is actually a breeding facility for orangutans, which are native to Borneo but not peninsular Malaysia.  We were a very lucky group–we had the opportunity to see quite a few orangutans up close, which is probably not always the case.

Watching the big male of the island eat his breakfast.


The young’uns get to play all day.
This baby’s name is Cha Cha. In the wild, he’d stay with his mother for 8+ years.

Just three feet–and a highly elecctrified fence–between us and the apes.
Simon and simian.


Simon and Emma, having fun.


So apparently Bukit Merah is a popular fishing destination.
Impromptu class discussion with lots of little boys.

While we waited for the bus, Dr. Ruppert led a discussion full of really great, thought-provoking questions. Some of the things the class pondered: What is the best way to protect an endangered species that has many simultaneous threats (habitat loss, illegal poaching, etc.)?  What if we become very successful at breeding orangutans, but don’t have enough stable habitat to release them to? Can animals that have been bred/raised in captivity be successfully released into the wild?  How do we balance the value of public education with the rights of animals in zoos?  How do you accommodate the spatial and physical needs of a wide-ranging species in captivity? There are no easy answers.  (Conservation can be tough.)

We left Bukit Merah resort and stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant.  From there, it was about a 30 minute drive to Zoo Taiping, our second destination of the day.  In a rare occurrence, Simon fell asleep on the bus ride.

Dr. Ruppert told us that she thought Taiping is possibly the best zoo in Malaysia, and it certainly was nice.  Several of the enclosures were under renovation, as they attempt to make “open concept” enclosures that more closely mimic natural habitat for the animals within.

While it doesn’t quite look like a real rain forest, this habitat gives the orangutans plenty of structure and exercise.
Gibbons are the smallest of the apes. This little baby wanted to follow its mother across the bridge. He put out his arms to balance and looked just like a human toddler learning to walk.


With help from a zookeeper, Simon feeds a slice of white bread to a giraffe.
Taller than a giraffe.
Just like horses, giraffes have exceptionally soft muzzles.
Please don’t feed the animals…unless the zookeeper hands you some Wonder Bread and says it’s OK.

The last stop was the hippopotamus enclosure, where the zookeeper fed them an assortment of veggies.  Hippos are known to be very dangerous, and I’ve never actually seen them up close, out of the water before.  Watching them eat was incredible.  He tossed an entire pumpkin or hard squash into the hippo’s mouth, and it puréed it as fast as a banana in a blender.  …With the lid off, I might add.  

So these are pretty much the most terrifying animals ever.
Yeah, you’re gonna want to back up, unless you want to be sprayed with orange squash goo.
The end of a long, hot, slightly rainy day. We were all pretty tired.
It was a 13-hr day and Simon was really well behaved. After he helped some strangers and made some great choices, he was allowed to pick out a souvenir…a rather scary Transformers mask.



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