by Adam Cayton-Holland

I lost it watching Jane Goodall release a chimpanzee back into the wild the other day. Deep, heartfelt sobs that left me sputtering on my couch like a wreck. Someone posted a clip online so I clicked on it and a few minutes later I was bawling. The chimp’s name was “Wounda” which means “close to death” in whatever native tongue the workers in the Goodall camp speak, so they gave the chimp that name as that’s exactly how they found her. An illness was eating away at her insides; she could barely stand up she was so skinny and frail. They rescued her, nursed her back to health and the video showed them releasing Wounda on Tchindzoulou Island, Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee refuge in the Republic of the Congo.

It started out very businesslike, little sentiment, just a job to be done. They loaded Wounda’s crate into the back of a flatbed truck, two-chimpanzee fingers poking through the bars, and then off they went: through the jungle and onto a highway, down to a dock, onto a boat, through another jungle – this time by river, Jane Goodall at the front of the boat with a ponytail and cool sunglasses looking appropriately intrepid – and then finally to the island, where everything slowed down. As dramatic music swelled the workers opened the crate door and everyone watched as Wounda charged out looking vigorous and healthy, fists pounding the ground in full chimpanzee gallop. It was all a little overwhelming. After a moment Wounda retreated back into the lap of one of the reserve employees. Then, growing slightly more confidant, she jumped on top of the crate that had just held her, sat down and began looking up into the canopy, taking in her new surroundings. And then, as if it all suddenly clicked for Wounda – that this was her life now, that she had been given a second chance in this paradise after all that she had been through, after peering over the precipice – Wounda turned to Jane Goodall and hugged her. Not just a small hug, a full on embrace. Healthy chimpanzee heart pressed firmly against enormous Jane Goodall heart, two primates locked in embrace in the Republic of the Congo. Two primates just doing their best to survive.

They held their embrace for what seemed like minutes, Goodall patting Wounda on the head, Wounda looking over her shoulder out into the jungle. And then as suddenly as Wounda had embraced her savior, she let go of Jane Goodall and charged off into the canopy, rehabilitated and released. Saved. She had just wanted to say thank you.

And I was fucking silly putty.

It was so pure, so absolutely true. A fellow soul in desperate need of help and not only does that soul get that help, they fall into the arms of the world’s leading expert on exactly how to help them. It tore me apart.

But I suppose I’ve always had a soft spot for simians.

My mom worked at the zoo growing up. She was a volunteer. They started her low on the totem pole – taking snakes around to hospitals to show sick kids, tending to Betty the ferret who also inhabited the reptile trailer because they didn’t know where else to put her – but after years of dutiful service they realized what a solid employee they had in my mother and so they allowed her to follow her interest to the primate house. She worked there a few times a week and would always come home filled with stories: like how one morning she walked into the eerie glow of a before business-hours monkey house and noticed activity in the macaque exhibit. She walked over and watched as Fragonard, the male macaque, studied his latest mural of shit and sticks, murals that he frequently painted on the Plexiglas window of his enclosure. My mother watched as Fragonard appraised his daily offering, quizzical hand on thoughtful chin, and then, inspired, walked over to it and adjusted some minute detail, one final tweak to a shit brushstroke, before retreating back into the interior of his display, a satisfied artist.

There were other stories, many of them, not all so quaint. There seemed to be an endless battle between two rival factions of ring-tailed lemurs housed in the same exhibit, and many a newborn baby fell victim to their turf wars, their tiny carcasses uncovered by zookeepers after bouts of shrieking hysteria. My mother didn’t spare us these details. She let us know that these were complicated and intelligent animals, close relatives to ourselves thrown into harsh prison conditions. Their behavior was not to be judged but merely noted. Zoos were awful places, she taught us, but she was trying to do what little she could to improve the lives of the animals whose unfathomable paths in life had led them to this zoo in the park four blocks from our house in Denver. My sisters and I didn’t really adopt a moral stance. We just appreciated the backstage access.

I loved sitting shotgun in my mom’s Jeep Cherokee, driving past other children queuing up in their insipid school groups, towards the back employee entrance off of 23rd Avenue. We would drive up to that gate, my mom casually putting her card up to the scanner, and then the enormous gate would slide open, and into the bowels of the zoo we would plunge. It was always so active, like a children’s storybook about a zoo: khaki-clad workers scurrying about, small carts darting off in every direction, glimpses of strange animals through back cages. The nursery was our favorite. Whenever some new baby was taken there we would beg to go in and see it and my mom would say okay but only if we stayed out of the way. We would oblige, knowing full well that the softie vets and vet-techs whom she had befriended would eventually cave and let us sit there in the rocking chair in the display window, bottle-feeding whatever springbok had been rejected by it’s mother, whatever group of wayward mongooses had landed in hospice.

Oh you don’t get to do this? We would say with our eyes to the jealous children that passed before the exhibit, their mouths agape in uncomprehending jealousy.

You mean your mom doesn’t work at the zoo? So you don’t get to hand-feed baby animals? Huh. Weird. Well move it along, there are a lot more kids that need to get through here today.

We adopted my mom’s love of primates wholesale, fashioning ourselves junior experts. Whenever someone would ask us about our mom working with monkeys we would patiently explain that she worked with both monkeys and apes, the difference, of course, being that apes are tail-less and have brachiated shoulders that allow them to swing from tree to tree. We could get into the more complex differences involving social interaction and cultural adaptability, but really who has the time?

When I was twelve my father packed up the family and took us to Indonesia. It was the first time we had left the United States. I’m not sure why my dad chose so exotic a locale for our inaugural sojourn but I suspect it had something to do with a boyhood fascination with a book entitled, “The Island of Bali,” and a momentary weakness on the part of my mother. It is a trait that has come to define my father and now, years later, all of his progeny: if someone opens the door a crack, barrel through. It’s highly effective, but requires dutiful back-end attention. And so, grateful and relieved to have his inner sanctum with him there on the far side of the world, my father spent the entire trip raving like a lunatic about how great everything was, as if to constantly reassure himself that the ground of his family’s goodwill wasn’t disappearing beneath him.

“This is, without doubt, the best kebab I have ever had in my life,” my father would proclaim, hyperbole-free, at some roadside shit-hole where the insects outnumbered the diners.

“This is, hands down, the prettiest beach I have ever seen,” he would say to no one in particular, tip-toeing over East Asian biomedical flotsam while staring wistfully towards the horizon.

He’d purchased an Indiana Jones-style fedora for the trip and all the locals thought he looked like David Carradine in Kung Fu.

“Caine!” they would yell excitedly after him as he walked down the street in his hat and Tevas.

“Halo! Terima kasih!” he’d yell back. “Hello! Thank you!”

We mocked him ceaselessly.

“I can honestly say, with no competition whatsoever, that was the best hole in the ground I’ve ever had to squat to pee into,” my mother would say upon emerging from some sweltering restroom.

“That was, absolutely, the greatest smelling trash-fire I have ever smelled in my sixteen years on this planet,” my older sister would echo. “I’m pretty sure they were literally burning feces.”

My dad took it in stride, christening himself “Least Valuable Player” – LVP – and waking up every morning long before any of us to go check out another temple, stopping at some roadside stall afterwards for the best mango drink of his entire life.

There was no ruining his high. He was showing his family the world, teaching us about the bigger picture; planting exotic seeds deep inside all of our psyches. We were free to do so with whatever level of ironic detachment we saw fit.

After two weeks sojourning around Indonesia we headed to Borneo for an extended bivouac at Camp Leakey, an orangutan reserve in the Tanjung Putting National Park. It was a move no doubt orchestrated by my mother in tense, unseen backroom negotiations. If you’re going drag the family halfway around the planet to look at temples, we’re for damn sure going to see some orangutans in the wild.

If Indonesia was off the beaten path, Borneo was where the trail disappeared all together. Camp Leakey was only accessible by boat and so we sailed upriver for hours, irate jungle birds squawking on either side of us while our guide Eddie hacked up durian with a machete on the front deck, oblivious to the retching sounds of the three white American children newly in his charge.

He was wanting in bedside manor.

“Is it, like, safe, with all the wild orangutans everywhere?” I asked him.

“Not just orangutans,” Eddie told us. “Gibbons, proboscis monkeys, sometime sun bears, leopards.”

“But is it dangerous?”

“Oh no. No dangerous. Unless animals hungry or angry. Then very dangerous. Oh and male orangutan! Most dangerous!”

“Do you see many male orangutans?”

“Sometime,” Eddie shrugged before sucking down another slimy sliver of stink-fruit and smiling widely.

Camp Leakey was little more than a series of tiny buildings built on stilts over a river, humble pods set back into the hungry jungle not fifty yards from the dock. Each unit was connected by a footpath made of thin, wood planks; a piece of rope hanging between support beams served as the only railing to keep one from tumbling into the murky brown, crocodile-filled water. It was not so much built into the woods as it grew out of them, and as we docked the remoteness of our location sank in. We were here for the next five days. In the thick, untouched jungle

My sisters had a room that they shared, my parents as well, and I had my own private bungalow. After the first hour of darkness, once various monkeys and apes had begun what we learned was their nightly ritual of running from bungalow to bungalow, banging on doors and then running off like so many delinquent teens, I moved into the room with my sisters. After the second hour, I moved into my older sister’s bed.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she told me.

“Unless they’re hungry or angry.”

“They’re not hungry or angry. This is a preserve. They are very well taken care of…”

BANG went the sound of irate primate fists on the door of our room in the jungle.


Then the sound of scurrying simian feet.

In Malay and Indonesian orang means person and utan is derived from a word that means forest. Thus an orangutan is person of the forest.

And we were in their world now.

The next morning brought renewed spirits and increased confidence as we set out for the Lamandau Wildlife Reserve a facility where rehabilitated, wild-born, ex-captive orangutans are released into the wild – orangutans that were captured, then eventually returned to the reserve. We set off on foot through the sweltering jungle, a Bataan death march through dense, impossible growth. Shedding layers was not an option as we were carefully instructed to wear long sleeves and long pants with our cuffs tucked into socks so as to avoid the omnipresent, stinging termites. That our native guides were traipsing around barefoot was a fact not lost on us as we sweated into multi-pocketed REI canvas vests and applied SPF 50 to the back of our alabaster necks.

At a clearing Eddie pointed out a gibbon eyeing us in a nearby tree. It sat there casually, white face, black, limber body, totally in his element. Eddie ripped a banana in half and gave one piece to me.

“Throw it to him,” he said.

I under-hand lobbed the banana up towards the gibbon and with the type of nonchalance typically reserved for prima donna center fielders, the gibbon caught the banana cleanly in his little palm at the last possible second of its descent, it landing with a loud, satisfying thwap. Then he bounded across the canopy and disappeared.

“That was, without doubt, my favorite game of catch I have ever played in my entire life.”

Eventually our march led us to a sort of elevated platform in the middle of nowhere, a few steps up to a bridge-like structure that stretched for fifty yards or so, before ending with several more steps down – a landing strip of brown, wood planks in the heart of a sea of green. Several reserve employees who worked out of a network of nearby concrete shacks greeted us there. We helped them carry buckets of freshly cut fruit to the platform, dumped them onto the wood planks and sat back and waited.

It didn’t take long.

Rustling in the green jungle gave way to dozens of red-orange bursts, as young orangutans of every make materialized for feeding time. They paid us very little mind, initially, as they lazily peeled the bananas and gummed the apples. Some of the newer babies were more curious, though, and after eating their fill they approached us and went through our pockets and touched our faces. Though initially terrified, it was impossible not to warm to them. Many of the younger ones were just recently brought to the facility, ripped from who knows what hellish conditions and now were back in relative safety, back where they belonged. Still, they were used to humans, and wanted to be held.

I watched a baby, male orangutan with one and a half arms – “machete,” Eddie matter-of-factly explained – climb right into my mother’s arms, it’s red hair perfectly matching hers. She instantly became a twelve-year-old girl. She climbed into a nearby hammock with the orangutan baby clenched to her chest and sighed the kind of content sigh one gets once, maybe twice in their lives. Then the baby peed all over her and fell asleep; my mom didn’t even bother cleaning up. She just closed her eyes and dozed off with him.

As my family took turns holding various baby orangutans and snapping photographs of one another, on the feeding deck where earlier the babies had earlier gorged, a new group of orangutans had emerged. The female elders. They had been watching from the woods. They made sure the babies were fed and now they took their fill. They never approached us, they just ate and kept an eye on the young ones; making sure we were okay, making sure these orangutans wouldn’t be harmed. They sized us up as harmless pretty quickly then one by one passed out in the sun, red bellies swelling with fruit. They weren’t scary anymore, there in the light of day. There was not a male among them, after all. They were just some creatures that share 97% of our DNA, snoozing in the late afternoon, a bunch of lazy ladies. They were the lucky ones, safe and well fed in a preserve in the middle of Borneo while the rest of their species stared down the barrel of extinction.

Our few remaining days at Camp Leakey were much the same: long treks through the jungles in search of wildlife, primate and otherwise. We took in a small fishing village and engaged in long conversations in the mess tent with the other far-flung travelers, most notably a pair of best-buddy air traffic controllers with unlimited miles and a penchant for adventure. We sat with them, pushing the unrecognizable bits of meat and bone around our plates, and watched the locusts affix themselves to the rectangular, halogen lights that hung above us. After dinner we would take turns getting destroyed by Eddie in ping pong.

They were the best meals my father ever ate.

When it was time to leave we hugged the staff at Camp Leakey, vowed to write our new-found Bornean jungle-friends often, to inquire about the fates of orangutans we had grown fond of. We probably meant it at the time too, but those promises were destined to go unfulfilled, as they always do. Our time there had come to an end; we would never see these people, this place again. Still, we were grateful. It had meant something. My mom and dad had dragged us halfway across the world for an experience that would be undeniable and that’s exactly what it was. These stories were in all of our databanks now. This would be the source material for all of those long, great travel conversations you find yourself having at hostels and dinners and gatherings of people who fashion themselves interesting.

My parents were showing us the world. Showing us that there was far more than just us. All we had to do in return was keep our eyes open.

We boarded the boat and headed back up river, a long, lazy trek to a civilization that we were in no hurry to rejoin. We rounded a bend and Eddie noticed something in a tree, rustling. This was not uncommon. Eddie saw everything before we did, pointing out all measure of insane bird throughout the course of our stay. But this was far larger than a bird. Eddie had the driver cut the engine and we idled for a few moments while drifting closer to shore. A break in the canopy crystallized what he had seen. Not fifty feet above us, standing, not sitting, with one arm wrapped around the trunk of the tree for support, was an enormous, male orangutan. He was fully upright; his huge cheeks hung from his face and his eyes followed them all the way down to the water, to us in the boat, gawking back up at him, this marvelous person of the forest. We stared at one another for what seemed like forever. We never took our gaze off of him, nor he us. We just watched each other in total silence. After a few minutes Eddie had the driver fire the engine back up and away we sped. Back to far-flung Bornean cities and towns, then back to America, to Colorado. Back to our lives.

The orangutan just watched us go.

I think about that moment sometimes. I wish I could go back to it. Back before everything happened, back before life got in the way, back before any of us ever peered over the precipice. Back to when it was just me and my family, everyone I loved all in one boat, everyone and everything that mattered, right there with me, close enough to touch. I can see us all so clearly bobbing up and down in the water, staring at an orangutan, an orangutan staring at us: a group of simians, our paths momentarily crossed on the far side of the world. Primates just doing their best to survive.


4 thoughts on “Primates

  1. Sara Finnegan-DOyon

    Wow, Adam, this is an incredible piece of writing. I spent the last two years living in Bali and had the opportunity to head to Sumatra to trek and see orangutans in the lush jungle filled with fireflies and proboscis monkeys and giant lizards. I love how you capture the magic of interacting with orangutans- these primates with whom we share 97% of our DNA- in the wilderness. After your mother’s work in the zoo, I can’t imagine how inspired this trip must have felt for your family. And your last paragraph is beautiful; a poignant and thoughtful way to conclude the piece. This was a pleasure to read.

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