Do Orangutans Have Human-like Memories?

Researchers have recently discovered that some ape species, chimps and orangutans, may have a memory similar to humans. In the past, scientists believed that time did not exist for animals. That animals only experienced the “now” and could not experience the past via memory. However Gema Martin-Ordas, PhD has been working with orangutans and chimps at the Leipzig Zoo in Germany to see if they can access “autobiographical” memories using a cue. Autobiographical memories are personal memories involving “I”, instead of memories involving the surroundings. Animals can remember routes in their habitats, such as where the trees are that produce. However, scientists are not sure if animals have the sense of self to think “I remember using this particular pathway to find fruit in this tree.”

Martin-Ordas and her colleagues took eight chimps and four orangutans and placed them in caged testing rooms. The apes watched as Martin-Ordas placed a banana on the outside of the room. The apes then watched as she placed two sticks of differing lengths in two separate boxes. Only one of the sticks was the right length to get the banana. Each ape had to find the right tool, head back to the room, and then use the tool to get to the banana. Each ape did it four times and all were successful in completing it.

For the next few years Martin-Ordas and her colleagues performed similar tests with the apes again, but not the exact same ones. Last year the original test was performed exactly the same. It was hoped that the original cues, Martin-Ordas, the room, and the puzzle, would remind the apes that they had to go search for the stick to get the banana. All, but one of the apes successfully completed the test.

This experiment are making scientists reevaluate the memory capabilities of animals, at least of apes.

Orangutans may be able to hold personal memories like humans can.

Orangutans may be able to hold personal memories like humans can.



Brookfield Zoo’s Orangutans

In 2012, I got to visit the Brookfield Zoo with a friend. It is a large, beautiful zoo. However my favorite part, shockingly, was the orangutans. They are located in Tropic World: Asia. There are five orangutans: two adult males, two adult females, and one juvenile female. Maggie and Brunei form one group, and Ben, Sophia, and Kekasih form another. They rotate which group is on exhibit.  




Maggie is a female Bornean orangutan. She was born on July, 18, 1961 at the San Diego Zoo. She is currently the oldest orangutan in an AZA zoo in North America. She was transferred to the Brookfield Zoo in February of 1995 from the Milwaukee Zoo. When she arrived to Brookfield Zoo, Maggie had a weight problem, brittle hair, dry skin, and bad digestion. After some research, the keepers and vet staff discovered that Maggie had a thyroid problem. With training, medicine, and a high fiber diet, Maggie has lost 90 lbs., her hair and skin are healthy, and she is digesting her food just fine. That is an extreme makeover any human would envy.

In April of 1995, Mukah, a former orangutan at the Brookfield Zoo, was born at the Lincoln Park Zoo. He was rejected by his mother soon after birth. A search was put out nationwide for a surrogate mother so he wouldn’t have to be hand-raised. A mother was found in the same city. Maggie, who reared four children of her own, picked Mukah up and raised him as her own. She even began lactating even though she hadn’t given birth in years.










Brunei is male hybrid orangutan. He was born On March 29, 1991 at the Brookfield Zoo. Over the last few years, Brunei has gone from a scrawny, shy orangutan to a husky, confident orangutan. Maturation of Brunei has given him an “extreme makeover” as well. Now that he has the muscles and the cheek pads, Brunei tries to show off to the other male, Ben. Brunei will flex his arms and hold heavy objects over his head to show Ben he is strong and to be feared. Ben though also has a fun side. He loves enrichment, especially if it involves food. Then again, who doesn’t?








Kekasih is a female Bornean orangutan. She was born October 6, 2008 at the Brookfield Zoo to Sophia and Ben. She has made a friend with a white-cheeked gibbon earlier this year. Recently the BZ combined the orangutans and gibbons into one exhibit. Multi-species exhibits provide lots of enrichment for all species involved. It creates a more natural habitat for the animals. The young white-cheeked gibbon and Kekasih have bonded and have been seen playing with each other.









Sophia is a female Bornean orangutan. She was born on February 18, 1981 at the Brownsville Zoo. She was transferred to the Brookfield Zoo in July 1992 from the San Diego Zoo. As an infant, Sophia had to be hand-raised by humans because her mother rejected her. Because orangutans learn behaviors from their mothers, Sophia did not know how to be a proper mom to her offspring. However because orangutans are intelligent and can learn by example, keepers were able to successfully teach Sophia how to hold, feed, and care for her infant. She was the first orangutan to be taught from humans how to be a good mother. 


Ben is a male Bornean orangutan. He was born on October 8, 1978 at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. He was transferred from the Omaha Zoo to Brookfield in July 1992. Ben is the father of Kekasih.




Phoenix Zoo

I was planning on visiting the Phoenix Zoo on July 1. My trip was canceled though due to record breaking temperatures. The PZoo is mainly outdoors and I didn’t want to battle the heat without shade. I was highly disappointed though because the Phoenix Zoo is the only zoo in Arizona with orangutans. There are three orangutans residing at this zoo:  mother, father, and daughter. In Spring of 2011, the PZoo opened up Orang-Hutan: “People of the Forest.” This new facility gave a large outdoor exhibit and two indoor exhibits for the orangutans to roam around. In June of 2012, the oldest living orangutan at the time, Duchess, passed due to cancer.


Photo: Our first birthday wish today is going out to Bornean female Bess at the Phoenix Zoo.  Bess is turning 35 today!  Let's hope Kasih and Michael let her celebrate in peace!  She looks so much like her mom Duchess in this pic :)Photo Credit - Denise Wagner

Photo credit: Denise Wagner

Bess is a female Bornean orangutan. She was born at the Phoenix Zoo on March 26, 1979 to Duchess. She is the mother of Kasih and the mate of Michael. Kasih is her first offspring. Bess is shy and uses the large exhibit to keep her distance away from Michael. However she is bright and learns new behaviors very easily. Something she taught herself was if she got her hand wet by the misters and held it over her head, she would keep herself cool.


Photo: We're back in Phoenix for Bornean male Michael's 26th birthday!  I know it will be a great time, Denise and Bob really know how to throw a good party!Photo Credit - Denise Wagner

Photo credit: Denise Wagner

Michael is a male Bornean orangutan. He was born at the Los Angeles Zoo on March 27, 1987. He was transferred to the Phoenix Zoo in October 2000. He is Kasih’s father. He is the dominant orangutan in the group and has an outgoing, comedic personality. He loves playing with enrichment will play tricks on the keepers, such as spitting water at them.


Photo: We are also celebrating the 7th birthday of Bornean female Kasih at the Phoenix Zoo!  Kasih is the daughter of the lovely Bess and handsome Michael and the granddaughter of the one and only Duchess.  We know Denise and Bob are making this day extra special for this feisty little lady! Happy Birthday Kasih!

Photo Credit - Denise Wagner

Photo credit: Denise Wagner

Kasih is a female Bornean orangutan. She was born at the Phoenix Zoo on January 27, 2006. She is a playful young orangutan. Before her grandmother, Duchess, died, Kasih would play around with her the most. She has characteristics of both her parents: shy, sensitive, and comedic. Another personality trait is intuition. She has correctly predicted outcomes to Cardinal’s games and the 2012 Fiesta Bowl.


Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo

The Orangutan Forest was opened in 2005. It is 15 times larger than the old orangutan exhibit, which is great. The trees have timed enrichment traps, so the orangutans get the enrichment at various times throughout the day. These traps encourage the orangutans to seek and find the food throughout the trees, a natural behavior.



Sepilok is a female Bornean orangutan. She was born on July 22, 2001 at the Hong Kong Zoo. She transferred to the Omaha Zoo in September of 2003. Sepilok is the name of an orangutan rehabilitation facility in Sandakan, Malaysia. Sepilok* was hanging around Amoi and climbing on the net while I was watching them.



Yasmine is a female Bornean orangutan. She was born on February 17, 1978 at the Twycross Zoo in England. She was transferred to the Omaha Zoo in September of 2003 from Hong Kong. Yasmin is moving to another zoo soon to go live with a male orangutan. Yasmine* was cuddled up with a blanket in a branch when I went. She was really cute.



Amoi is a female Bornean orangutan. She was born at the Omaha Zoo on May 3, 2003. One enrichment she enjoys is playing in the sawdust and foraging for food items and toys. At the Zoo, Amoi* and another female were sitting next to each other by the net; alternating between relaxing and playing.



W’gasa is a male orangutan. He was born on March 2, 2005 at the Omaha Zoo. W’gasa enjoys food enrichment. Last February he was given a frozen heart made out of koolaid. He joyously was sucking at it and eating it. W’gasa is a very active, young orangutan who likes to interact with the public. When I was at the zoo, he was doing the splits on the exhibit wall and reaching out to the guests. I got a good picture of him. Unfortunately it is a dark picture.



Credit: April Gossmann

Chip is a Bornean male orangutan. He was born on January 29, 1993 at the Rochester Zoo. He was transferred to the Omaha Zoo in November of 1998. When I went to the Omaha Zoo, Chip was chilling in the left exhibit. He was on the ground in the shade relaxing.

Tukang Susu:


Tukang Susu is a Bornean male orangutan. He was born on January 27, 1998 at the Pittsburg Zoo. His name means “The Milkman.” The events following his birth changed how the zoo community worked with orangutans. As a baby, Tukang suffered a few medical crises. Also Ember, a female orangutan, took Tukang from his mother, Kim. Kim was not successful in getting him back. As a result, Ember ended up raising him. During Tukang’s second medical issue, both Ember and Kim were pregnant. Because Tukang was still a baby, it was worried that Tukang wouldn’t get the proper care from Ember, especially with his medical issues. To ensure all orangutans would get the proper care, orangutan husbandry changed over to behavior training using positive reinforcement. The results were transformative for the orangutans, staff, and the world. Orangutans that were once distrustful and distant, were interactive and trusting.

*I am not sure if I got the correct pictures of the three females. I am only guessing.


  • Farmarie, M. (2001). Response To A Medical Crisis: A New Approach To Orangutan Husbandry At The Pittzburg Zoo and Aquarium. The apes: challenges for the 21st century, conference proceedings (pp. 112-115). Chicago: Chicago Zoological Society.
  •  Laukaitis, A. J. (2005, May 26). Orangutans get new exibit at Omaha zoo : The Lincoln Journal Star Online. Lincoln Journal Star Online : Lincoln’s news leader. Retrieved July 15, 2013, from
  •  Machain, C. (2012, February 14). Valentine’s Day at the zoo | Viewfinder. Viewfinder | Photos and video from the staff of the Omaha World-Herald. Retrieved July 15, 2013, from
  • Perkins, Lori. International Studbook of the Orangutan. Chicago: Lincoln Park Zoo, 2002. Print.

Want To Buy An Orangutan For $200?

In a northern region on the island of Sumatra, named Aceh, lays the Limbat’s Zoo. This Zoo holds quite a few native species, including crocodiles, orangutans, sun bears, pangolins, hornbills, and gibbons. You’d think this would be a fun place to visit, but this zoo is not like your typical zoo in the States. These animals are for sale. It’s more like a large pet store than a zoo. The visitors come to check the animals out and can buy them if they want, pretty cheap too. A leopard can go for $25. And to show that this is a place that is transitory and severely frugal, the animals are either packed in small cages or tethered to trees and fed very little. This is the unfortunate truth for the exotic animal pet trade. People catch these animals and try to sell them for a quick buck. The pet trade is actually illegal in Indonesia, but there are hardly any prosecutions. It has a lot to do with government funding. There just isn’t enough police officers to go around.

Over the last decade, the exotic pet trade has seen an increase in the demand for these rare creatures. They are kept as pets, considered a delicacy, or is believed to have some medicinal purposes. These species are seen as a status symbol, so with the rise of income in the Indonesian cities came with it a rise in the demand for these endangered species. The poverty of the small villages that are near the rain forests are also perpetuating the pet trade. Poachers will persuade the villagers for very little money to go and trap the animals. It is a vicious cycle. Education and economic support for the rural communities  are vital steps in stopping the pet trade.