Researching our orangutans & their amazing abilities

Bornean orangutan Bella and her parents Kumang and Denda have just been enrolled in an enriching research program where their decision-making and mathematical skills will be scientifically assessed on exhibit for Zoo guests to observe.

Bella, photo by Mike Wemett.
Bella, photo by Mike Wemett.

The University of Rochester Cognitive Sciences research lab of Dr Jessica Cantlon will be expanding its ongoing research with our olive baboon troop to include 36-year-old Kumang, 12-year-old Denda and 2-year-old Bella. Earlier this week, Denda demonstrated impressive finger and tongue dexterity skills in his first trial, starting with games and treats. The tasks will become more engaging and technical over time, advancing to double sided touch screens where Zoo guests will be able to watch the orangutans demonstrate cognitive skills.

Denda and Sara, one of Dr. Cantlon's research assistants. Photo by Dr. Jeff Wyatt
Denda and Sara, one of Dr. Cantlon’s research assistants. Photo by Dr. Jeff Wyatt.

“Bella is curious and playful,” says zoo keeper Mike Wemett. “As a zoo keeper, I have the privilege of watching her grow up and learn from her mother, and this research will track some of that development.”

Bella, photo by Mike Wemett.

Engaging science to better understand orangutan intelligence will help us advance novel approaches to designing new programs and exhibits that are stimulating and enriching.

—Dr. Jeff Wyatt, Director of Animal Health and Conservation

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

Back in Borneo: The final chapter

Blog Header - Conservation 2 Deep in the jungles of Borneo in 1971, a 25-year-old anthropologist named Birute Galdikas first began her life-long career studying orangutans in the wild. Birute was one of famed anthropologist, Louis Leakey’s three “angels,” which also included Jane Goodall (studying chimpanzees in Tanzania) and Dian Fossey (studying Mountain gorillas in Rwanda). Birute’s research at Camp Leaky continues today in promoting scientific study and conservation of orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park. This southern Bornean, peninsular, 125,000 square-mile, peat swamp park with a 100-foot towering tree canopy juts into the Java Sea. In addition to being home to the largest wild population of orangutans (6,000), the forest supports semi-wild, orangutans rescued by Birute from the pet trade and released more than 30 years ago. Many of these rescued and rehabilitated orangutans and their offspring provide park visitors with surprisingly up close, inspiring encounters and incredible photo opportunities, all in a free-range, forested setting. Our visit to Camp Leaky proved a perfect final day for our annual, integrated conservation trip to Borneo, connecting human, livestock, forest and orangutan health!

Blog and photos, unless otherwise noted, by: Dr. Jeff Wyatt D.V.M., M.P.H., Director of Animal Health and Conservation for the Seneca Park Zoo Dr. Andrew Winterborn D.V.M., Seneca Park Zoo and University of Rochester veterinary alumnus; University Veterinarian, Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Back in Borneo: Chapter 3

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How do healthy goats and cattle save orangutans from extinction? It’s all about deforestation, specifically illegal logging. Health in Harmony, Seneca Park Zoo’s conservation anchor in Borneo, reports a 68% decrease in illegal logging households for more than six years. This impressive accomplishment rings true as we have spent six days meeting Farmers’ and Widows’ groups investing in and relying on revenue generated from healthy cattle and goats. Such revenue includes highly productive organic farming from composted manure as well as meat production.

Highly reproductive goats (especially healthy twin kids) underscore the benefit of enhancing animal health & husbandry. Training has expanded formally with use of the FAMACHA card.  Pinker color to conjunctival mucous membranes under lower eyelid indicates anemia is not a health concern. New training in selectively administering oral de-wormer may decrease parasite loads in overall herd of approximately 250 goats.

As Ibu Setiawati and Jilli implement their new health monitoring and treatment practices, we look forward to returning next year for more good news.  Thank you Seneca Park Zoo donors for supporting Health in Harmony, making a true difference for goats, cattle, villagers and orangutans.

Blog and photos by:

Dr. Jeff Wyatt D.V.M., M.P.H., Director of Animal Health and Conservation for the Seneca Park Zoo

Dr. Andrew Winterborn D.V.M., Seneca Park Zoo and University of Rochester veterinary alumnus; University Veterinarian, Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Back in Borneo: Chapter 2

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Seneca Park Zoo’s One Health-One Medicine veterinary approach emphasizes the connection between humans, wildlife and environmental health. That connection can be found in Rochester, through the relationship between the Genesee River and sturgeon health, and it can be found on the opposite side of the globe, as witnessed by the coexistence of Bornean villagers with the rainforest and its role in orangutan survival.

We recently enjoyed a species sharing medical experience when Valerie Lou, M.D., the University of Rochester International Medicine fellow sent this year to Borneo by the Seneca Park Zoo’s American Association of Zoo Keepers chapter, joined us on farm rounds. Dr. Lou journeyed to Borneo to mentor villager health care in ASRI Klinik, in synchrony and harmony with impactful orangutan forest conservation programs. Dr. Lou joined our veterinary & herd health team for a day with Jilli and Ibu Setiawati, as we recorded data, performed physical exams and healthy baby checks, de-wormed and hoof trimmed 37 cattle and goats under the care of 23 farmers’ groups and widows.

Blog and photos by:

Dr. Jeff Wyatt D.V.M., M.P.H., Director of Animal Health and Conservation for the Seneca Park Zoo

Dr. Andrew Winterborn, D.V.M., Seneca Park Zoo and University of Rochester veterinary alumnus; University Veterinarian, Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

Back in Borneo: Chapter One

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Health in Harmony’s mantra, “Saving the Rainforest with a Stethoscope,” takes on greater meaning in this, our third conservation-medicine expedition to Borneo. Our veterinary mentoring of farmers and ASRI conservation staff last year has resulted in a more formal preventive medicine approach for cattle and goat herds, and in health trend tracking, performed and expanded by Jilli and Ibu Setiawati. Healthier livestock provides villagers with sustainable, forest-friendly, revenue generating alternatives to illegal logging and slash and burn farming practices.

We are honored and proud to participate in Health in Harmony and ASRI Klinik’s capacity building and mentoring initiatives which promote healthier lives for villagers and protect forest for 10% (2,500) of the world’s remaining Bornean orangutans currently thriving in Gunung Palung National Park.

Blog and photos by:

Dr. Jeff Wyatt DVM, MPH, Director of Animal Health and Conservation for the Seneca Park Zoo

Dr. Andrew Winterborn DVM, Seneca Park Zoo and University of Rochester veterinary alumnus; University Veterinarian, Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

The Palm Oil Crisis: A major problem for orangutans

The ZooTeen program, which began in 1993, gives young adults the opportunity to explore their interests in ecology and conservation. ZooTeens spend the summer at stations throughout the Zoo educating our visitors about Zoo animals and important environmental concepts. Isabella Fazio, a ZooTeen for several years, shares this blog post with us.

ZooTeen 3Hi! I’m Isabella Fazio, a 2nd year ZooTeen here at the Zoo. Last year, after I participated in the palm oil station, I learned about the biggest problem orangutans were facing in the wild: Deforestation. People cut down trees that orangutans called home in order to get a creamy, high-demand oil called palm oil.

After the trees are gone, palm oil plantations are then built where the beautiful jungles once were. Besides just destroying countless animal homes, the trees also release carbon dioxide into the sky, contributing to global climate change. But it isn’t all bad. At the palm oil station, I learned that more and more companies are beginning to grow their own palm oil on their own land which is called sustainable palm oil.

ZooTeen 2What we ZooTeens can do to show we care for orangutans and the environment is support companies that use sustainable palm oil. Right now you may be wondering how you can figure out if your favorite food has sustainable palm oil or not. Well, there are a few ways to tell.

  • Head to the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil’s Web site.
  • The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has a palm oil shopping guide on their Web site. Their list has a bunch of sustainable palm oil users and companies that promise to change their ways in a couple of years.
  • Use the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s app, if you have a smart phone. Just search “palm oil” and it will be the first app to come up. Also, it’s free! You can use the app to search for any product you are concerned about and it will tell you if it is orangutan friendly or not.
  • If these sources happen to tell you that your product is not orangutan friendly you can write or e-mail the company to stop using palm oil.

This DOES work. For a long time big companies like Nestle, Heinz and Nutella were using non-sustainable palm oil. But thanks to concerned people like us, the pressure was too much for the companies and they switched to sustainable palm oil.

Besides checking the label in your own home, SPREAD THE WORD! On August 1, to earn my Girl Scout Silver Award, I did my own project at the Seneca Park Zoo talking about palm oil to guests and passing out palm oil shopping guides. By the end of my project, I had talked to more than forty-six guests that day! Even if my message gets to one person, that one person could help make a difference for orangutans.

Orangutans rescued in Borneo

Photo courtesy of IAR
Photo courtesy of IAR

Our visit with International Animal Rescue‘s (IAR) veterinary staff of five, led by Dr. Karmele Llano Sanchez and Dr. Adi Irawan, highlighted the urgent need to rescue orangutans from illegal possession as well as heighten community awareness to keep orangutans free and wild in Gunung Palung National Park and adjacent protected lands. Sixty-four orangutans ranging from orphaned neonates to rescued adults inhabit the new 60-acre rehabilitation center between ASRI Klinik in Sukadana and Ketapang.

The younger orangutans leap and swing overhead in the treetops, following their caregivers across the forested rehabilitation center. Impressive progress has been made over the past two years since our last visit to IAR. The new two-phase $2 million rehabilitation center’s master plan is well on its way to being realized. Phase 1’s campus with five new buildings, including a well-equipped veterinary clinic with radiology, surgical and diagnostic facilities in addition to quarantine, diet prep, dormitory and keeper support buildings, all provide the best resources anywhere to care for orangutans in need. Vertical climbing structures and spacious pens have been constructed with many more currently underway. IAR has worked diligently with the community to save orangutans and habitat through education outreach, purchase and protection of habitat as well as joining the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) for discussions promoting protection of endangered forest.

Photo by Jeff Wyatt
Photo by Jeff Wyatt

All of the antibiotics and parasite medicine purchased by Seneca Park Zoo’s American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) Chapter were a welcomed addition to the clinic’s pharmacy. We enjoyed discussing very similar clinical challenges providing the best medical care to orangutans, be they in tropical Ketapang, Indonesia or snowy Rochester. Throughout our experiences and discussions we continued our “One Medicine – One Health” theme, connecting IAR orangutan and ASRI villager health initiatives all promoting a healthy habitat for wildlife and people.

– Dr. Jeff Wyatt, veterinarian

Impressions of Borneo: Part 3


Dr. Nick Aloisio of the University of Rochester Medical Center visited orangutans at the International Animal Rescue (IAR) rehabilitation facility near Health in Harmony Clinic. IAR is also supported by Seneca Park Zoo. This is a continued update from our first blog from Aloisio.

Check out some photos below!

Photos provided by Health in Harmony