The story of Kumang and her orangutan family

Seneca Park Zoo has been home to many animals for nearly 120 years, each one unique and special in its own way.  Keepers are often asked if they have a favorite, whether it’s an entire species or an individual animal, and for me the answer is always the same: there have been too many wonderful creatures of all kinds that I’ve had the privilege to spend time with for me to have a favorite. 

There is one species, however, that seems to bring out the best in me as a keeper and a person, and that’s the orangutans. One of them in particular, our matriarch Kumang, has done more to open my mind and heart than any other animal.

Kumang’s story starts long before her arrival here at Seneca Park Zoo back in 1991. She was born October 15th, 1977 at Belle Vue Zoological Gardens in Manchester, England. Her parents were Harold and Bobo, both caught in their natural range in 1959 (a common practice back then) at the approximate age of 4 years old. At the time of Kumang’s birth, Belle Vue was in the process of closing for good, and one month later all the zoo’s orangutans as well as a few other animals were sold to Weybridge, a private zoo in the suburbs of London.

Baby Kumang. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling
Baby Kumang, photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

Weybridge was owned by Gordon Mills, the manager of several popular singers including Tom Jones and Gilbert O’Sullivan. One of the keepers at Weybridge was Jeremy Keeling, who later co-founded a highly successful primate rescue center called Monkey World. Jeremy (who actually named Kumang) also wrote a book about another orangutan named Amy, and in it he touches on Kumang’s early years. 

Sadly, Kumang’s mom died when Kumang was only 18 months old and it was up to Jeremy to step in as surrogate mom. He writes about how at first, Kumang wanted nothing to do with him and resisted bottle feedings, even though she needed them to survive. Eventually he won her trust as he would take her to visit other orangutans during the day, and then she’d curl up beside him at night.  If it wasn’t for Jeremy’s compassion and determination, Kumang and her extended family would not be here today.

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling
Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

What makes this episode in her life noteworthy is that despite losing her mom while still a baby and being partially hand-reared (an experience that tends to have a negative impact later in life) especially for primates, Kumang has always been an exceptional mother to all four of her offspring.

In 1984, Gordon decided to close his zoo and donated all of the orangutans in his collection to the San Diego Zoo. This stared a new chapter in Kumang’s life, the highlight of which was her proficiency at escaping the confines of her exhibit at least half a dozen times. Stories have circulated online about Kumang’s adventures as she and her friends completely foiled all attempts by the staff to contain them. You have to admire such determination and creativity!

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling
Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

In 1991, the Orangutan Species Survival Plan made a breeding recommendation for Kumang to be loaned to Seneca Park Zoo along with Jiggs, a wild-caught adult male with a successful breeding record from Hogle Zoo in Utah. Jiggs arrived here first, and Kumang one month later. Introductions went well and soon they were enjoying each other’s company. Kumang became pregnant shortly afterwards, and I remember how anxious the staff felt about whether or not she’d know what to do, being a first time mother. We didn’t know her history, if she’d ever seen or been around babies, or been mother-raised herself.

In 1992 their first baby was born, and any doubts about Kumang’s parenting skills were quickly erased. She was an absolute perfect mother in every way, and Jiggs as an already experienced father knew to keep a respectful distance while mother and son bonded. We named the young orangutan Bandar, after a village in his native Borneo. As Bandar got older and wanted to play or just get some attention, Jiggs was happy to oblige. It was very touching to watch Kumang care so lovingly for Bandar, and to watch the 300-plus-pound Jiggs play so gently with him.

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling
Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

Bandar now resides at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha and has been a good father to 4 offspring of his own.

Bandat in 2014, Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling
Bandar in 2014, photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

Kumang went on to have another offspring with Jiggs, a female named Dara. In January 2001, Jiggs passed away at the approximate age of 35 years old. It was a sad day in Seneca Park Zoo history, as Jiggs was an exceptional animal and well-loved by those that knew him.

Later that year, the Species Survival Plan recommended that Lowell, from the San Diego Zoo, be sent here to be Kumang’s new mate. Together they had a son named Datu, who now resides at the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin. As of this writing, Datu has just become a first-time father to baby Keju, who is doing well at Henry Vilas Zoo.

Datu, Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling
Datu, photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

Lowell passed away from a stroke in 2006. Kumang continued living with her daughter Dara, and in 2011, a young male named Denda from Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo came to live with them as another breeding recommendation for Kumang. Dara was sent to the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk a short time later to hopefully start her own family. Her new home is a spacious habitat with lots of grass, a waterfall and four-story climbing structure. We’re all very happy for her.

Dara at Norfolk Zoo, Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling
Dara at Norfolk Zoo, photo courtesy of Jeremy Keeling

Meanwhile, Denda has been a good partner for Kumang, as he engages her in play on a regular basis (whether she wants to or not). Thanks to him, Kumang’s activity level has gone up, and that’s a good thing. Together Kumang and Denda have a daughter named Bella, born on April 29th of 2013. As usual, Kumang has been a perfect mother to Bella, and Denda has shown great gentleness when he plays with his daughter.

Looking forward, Seneca Park Zoo is about to undergo some exciting changes in the not-so-distant future. A new and spacious habitat for our orangutans is expected to be a part of those changes. The staff is thrilled about the prospect of new quarters for our orange friends and look forward to seeing them happy together for years to come.

Kumang and Bella
Kumang and Bella, photo by Kellee Wolowitz

Seneca Park Zoo would like to offer special thanks to Mr. Jeremy Keeling for saving Kumang, and for providing photos and insight into her early life. Until this year, we never knew anything about Kumang’s life in England, and from what we’ve learned, we all feel much closer to her now. I will be forever grateful to him for providing us with that information.

Jeremy’s lifelong passion and dedication to saving unwanted and abused primates through Monkey World is an inspiration, to say the least. 

I highly recommend Jeremy’s book Jeremy and Amy. It’s an incredible story, made even more so because a small part of it is our very own Kumang’s story.

Jeremy and Amy

Join us for Ornagutan M.O.M. Weekend this Mother’s Day weekend and learn about the Missing Orangutan Mothers (M.O.M.) Campaign, which is bringing attention to the crises facing these beautiful animals by encouraging people to help protect them. Join Zoo staff and volunteers as we honor and celebrate our own orangutans, Kumang, Denda and Bella, and wear #OrangeforOrangs to show your support for conservation.



— Brian Sheets, Zoo Keeper