Encouraging tool use with our orangutans

When you walk by the outdoor Orangutan Exhibit, you’ll notice a large concrete structure. We call this our “termite mound,” and it’s designed to encourage tool use for our three orangutans. In the wild, they often eat bugs by using sticks to fish them out of the ground and this device gives them the opportunity to mimic their natural behavior.

The termite mound is a hollow structure, with seven PVC tubes that go deep inside the mound. The tubes have special caps that are attached to the inside end and they’re designed to hold food items such as oatmeal or Jell-O. On the backside is an access door that allows keepers to get inside the mound to add or change out the caps easily.

After the caps are screwed on and the door is secured, the keeper leaves and secures the outside enclosure. Then the orangutans are given access to the area.

Photos by Brian Sheets

They immediately know if there’s anything inside the mound and will use sticks, hay, even wadded-up cardboard to fish out whatever is inside. This is not something that was taught, their natural instincts are all they needed.

There are many benefits of the termite mound. It allows our orangutans the opportunity to both problem solve and use tools, and our visitors get an opportunity to observe their natural behaviors. Delivering food with this method is also a great way to keep our orangutans occupied, something that’s very important when caring for such a highly-intelligent animal.

The keepers enjoy the challenge of providing new and interesting food items so that the orangutans rarely find the same thing twice. Oatmeal can be flavored with extracts, it can also be delivered frozen or runny; both methods make retrieving it more difficult and time consuming. Sugar-free Jell-O is another popular item using a wide variety of flavors and occasionally adding grapes, raisins, seeds, etc. to make it more interesting. All this serves to give our orangutans something keepers strive for every day – to give them something to do, and whenever possible something they’ve never had before.

We would like to thank Eagle Scout Tyler Hutteman and the rest of Troop 206 for building the termite mound for us, as well as the Honolulu Zoo for providing the plans for them to follow!

– Brian Sheets, zoo keeper