On Sunday, October 13, 1996, I visited the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and discovered a new exhibit. I came upon Think Tank where people are researching animal thinking. Think Tank is a building which serves as the research facility and is connected to the an educational center, an orangutan viewing area, and the Great Ape House via a system of ropes and towers located outdoors above the heads of the zoo visitors. This route of transport allows the orangutans to travel between the two buildings, but not all of the orangutans travel (I will discuss the reason why a little later). I spent most of my day at the zoo observing the orangutan.
Let me first introduce you to the four orangutans I observed. First, Azy, a nearly twenty-year old male. Azy was born in a zoo in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1977. He has been living here at the National Zoo for most of his life, and his father, who is thirty years old, resides here too. I observed Azy's full sisters, Inda, who is sixteen years old, and Iris, who is nine. Last, but not least is the baby, Chang, who will be six in February. Chang is the half brother of Azy, Inda, and Iris.
Like people, although clearly of the same species, these four orangutans differ considerably in appearance. The name "orangutan" means "forest man" in Malay (so the exhibit sign informed me), and I think this is an accurate description, given that these primates are so human-like in appearance. Azy has very long rough-looking fur that covers his body like a curtain, and he has a long beard. His fur is darker from the top of his head down to his shoulder blades, and it is a chestnut brown color from there down to the rest of his body. Azy is by far the largest of the orangutans I saw. Inda is much shorter, has long or typical chimpanzee-length fur which is dark brownish-red in color. The other female, Iris, has the characteristic red fur, but slightly shorter than Inda's. Inda and Iris have the same body size. Chang, smaller in size, has shorter fur than all the others, and his is softer in texture and thinner. Chang also had lighter areas of fur around his eyes which makes him look like he's wearing glasses. The skin of Chang's face is lighter than that of the others, and Azy has the darkest face. I have read that younger orangutans have lighter skin on their faces that gets darker as they grow older. The color of their fur may allow them to blend in well with the green-brown-red shades of their native forest.
Orangutans have no tail. They move around from tree to tree in the forest using their powerful arms and legs. I noticed how similar the orangutans' hands are to human hands, right down to a similarly flat fingernail and creases in the skin of the palm. One plate posted in the exhibit reads: "An Orangutan's long, muscular arms and vise-like grip help it move through the forest with ease . . . Adult orangutan arms can be up to three feet long . . . Feet can work like hands." Azy has the longest arms; Inda and Iris have slightly shorter arms of about equal size; Chang has the shorter arms.
As I was sitting there observing and taking notes, one of the researchers who has been working with the orangutans here at the National Zoo, Melanie Bond, came over to talk to me. I had noticed that Azy was the least active of the group, and reasoned that he is older and his large size might make it difficult for him to move around. Melanie told me that Azy does not travel between Think Tank and the Great Ape House, but spends all his time at Think Tank. She says it is typical for orangutans to travel only short distances each day in the wild, and that large heavy males like Azy usually travel very little. She explained that in the wild these males cannot always find safe routes over branches that will support their weight. She informed me that Azy has climbed the tower a few times, but he avoids traveling to the Great Ape House partly because his father's territory is there. You see, orangutans are solitary animals, and each male has his own territory that he defends from other males, so it makes sense that Azy would stay in his own territory and away from his father's. Inda and Iris, however, travel between the two buildings, and in fact, Inda was the first of the family to travel the route. Melanie said that Chang has just recently started traveling and being away from his mother for extended periods of time. This is typical behavior for young males Chang's age. In the wild, males leave their mothers permanently at seven to ten years old when they have reached sexual maturity.
At feeding time, Azy is isolated in another cage. This reason for this, Melanie tells me is that Azy will take food from others. Azy has the largest appetite. During feeding time I could observe only Iris and Chang because Inda went off to another cage too. Orangutans are anxious and excited as food approaches. Their meal consists of bunches of grapes, apples cut in half, bananas, and halved oranges. In the wild their typical food is fruit. In the zoo food is handed in through the bars of their cages. Either the orangutans take the food directly from Meanie's hand or she places it on the ground inside the cage. Chang remains by the food entrance side of the cage even after all the food has been given him. He even reaches through the bars, looking as if he's begging for more. It was funny to see Chang hoard his food and be reluctant to let Iris share it with him. When Iris comes over to get some food, Chang only very reluctantly relinquishes some of it. Chang never sits still, and even while eating, he climbs around on the "monkey bars" inside his cage. Iris takes her food to the window part of the exhibit from which I am watching her. She proceeds to eat a banana. First, she bites off the top stem portion of the banana. Then she peels the skin of the banana down about halfway, and she takes small bites of the fruit. She plays with food a lot. For example, she bites off a piece of banana, chews it up and sticks it on the glass with her tongue. She then licks this off the glass. She repeats this behavior as she proceeds to eat the whole banana. I also observe Iris eating a bunch of grapes. Iris picks up the bunch, grasping the stem between her thumb and index finger, and she tilts her had back and dangles the bunch of grapes in her mouth, picking off the grapes one by one. She leaves the stem behind after she has stripped all the grapes off. The orangutans spent about one hour eating, and they finished all their food.
After their meal, Azy and Inda return to the viewing area. Inda comes and sits right in front of the glass separating me from her. She sits with her arms crossed and Chang approaches her. I find the relationship between Inda and Chang interesting. I observe Inda regurgitating and feeding Chang. Melanie tells me regurgitation-feeding is common material behavior, and that Iris is very gentle and maternal, though she has no children of her own. Social behavior among orangutans is intriguing because they are solitary in the wild and since here at the zoo the orangutans live together, the relationships that develop between them seems more individual than that of other primates like chimpanzees and gorillas. Melanie says individuals don't seem to do the same things the way chimpanzees and gorillas who naturally live in groups do.
Since social behavior is not well defined, when I asked Melanie about hierarchies, she said that orangutans appear to have few social rules. But one general similiarity between orangutans and other species and within their own group is a strong tolerance for their young. I got a glimpse of this first-hand when I saw Chang swinging a rope and hitting Azy with it. This was a gentle sort of play, but I saw that Azy found it annoying to have this rope strike him again and again. However, instead of getting angry at Chang, Azy simply would swing the rope back, and when he grew tired of swinging the rope away, he finally took the rope and grasped it under him so Chang could not longer get hold of it.
When there was about one hour left before the building was due to close, I observed what is referred to as nest building. In the wild every night orangutans (and chimpanzees too) build themselves a nest in a tree or other safe place to sleep in. Azy was the first to make his bed. Inside the cage were pieces of burlap that served as blankets; there was also hay for mattress-like cushioning. Azy bulldozes some hay and burlap over to one corner of the cage. He piles up some hay and lays two pieces of burlap over it. He then proceeds to get inside by lifting up the top piece of burlap, sitting on the pile of hay covered with burlap, and covering himself with the top piece of burlap. Iris builds a similar nest on a ledge. The way she went about it reminded me of someone putting a sheet on a bed. Inda did not make her bed until the lights turned off inside the cage fifteen minutes before the building closed. Melanie informed me that Inda doesn't like to make her bed until the last minute. Even as the building was closing, Chang still had not made his bed, even though the three others were alreading sleeping in theirs. I thought this demonstrated a reluctance to go to bed is not restricted to human children.
As mentioned above, the building is also a research facility. On the day I visited the zoo, there was no research going on as it was the researcher's day off. However, I watched a video which was available to all vistors which told me about the kind of research that is going on.
The research project at Think Tank is called the Orangutan Language Project, and its goal is to find out what orangutans are thinking about. To do this, the researchers are developing a language that allows humans and orangutans to communicate. The participants featured in the film were Inda and Azy. They have after a year learned nearly sixty different symbols which represent words or letters grouped into seven categories: verbs, objects, food, orangutans, people, adjectives, and numbers. What happens during a lesson is that one at a time, the orangutans will interact with a computer screen that displays these symbols. The orangutan's job is to touch the appropriate symbol on the computer screen that corresponds to the image presented on a television monitor. The study has shown how intelligent these primates are, how they can use symbols and solve simple problems with them, but it will take much more research to reveal how orangutans think.
I enjoyed my day at the zoo very much. I learned a lot about orangutans. Although my observations only lasted a few hours, I got to know a little about each orangutan I observed. I discovered that each orangutan has its own unique personality and that it was easy to tell them apart based on physical characteristics. This was the first time I had ever done any sort of in-depth observation, though I have been to the Zoo countless numbers of times. Previously I would rush through to see as many animals as possible, not staying to learn anything for real about them. I must say I liked watching these animals partly because their behavior was so like that of human beings. I also found it interesting to imagine what their life must be like in the wild from what I managed to see and learn in the zoo.
The impact of man's interaction with nature can be clearly observed in the behaviors of Whitetail Deer on Bull Run Mountain. Hunters, in very large numbers, can be found in the woods from the first of October until the middle of January. In an effort to survive the hunting season, the natural behaviors of the whitetail deer change drastically. Luckily for the deer, Mother Nature is on their side. The whitetail is well equipped to outsmart the best hunter, even on his best day. Along with shrewd instinct, these animals are extremely agile. The whitetail's senses of smell, hearing, and its ability to detect motion are so superior to ours, many a hunter, time and time again, goes home empty-handed. The observations in this essay are not the result of a few hours or even days spent in the woods, but countless outings over the past sixteen years with my grandfather to Bull Run Mountain.
There are three distinct hunting seasons, bow and arrow, black powder, and modern gun. Each occurs at a different time in the year and corresponds to different behaviors of the deer. Some of these behaviors are natural, while others are a result of the predator, man. Except for poachers -- people who who illegally hunt out of season -- hunters interact with deer in the woods from October first until the middle of January. I am describing the whitetail's habits and survival tactics during just these phases of the year.
During the summer, save the occasional hiker, wild deer and other animals have Bull Run Mountain to themselves. The Whitetail live in herds, typically from twenty to fifty in number. They are relaxed and confident. When traveling by car, the deer will practically ignore people. We have taken some very good video of the herds during this time of year from the car. My grandfather and I have even stepped from the car and approached them on foot with the cameras rolling. In the summer the fawns are only a few months old and still wobbly. Once, after creeping through some tall grass to get a better camera angle, I surprised a doe (female deer), who started to make a high-pitched grunt and stomped the ground with her hoof. My suspicions proved right, for five feet away her fawn lay hiding in the grass. When the fawns are too young to run well, they hide, instinctually crouching, with their bony knees folding over, behind their neck. This protects their most vulnerable body part from attack. Unfortunately, these same young, first-year deer are the ones most often taken during hunting season Nondiscriminating hunters kill many young, inexperienced deer before these deer reach sixty pounds.
By August, a bucks antlers, which grow and fall off again every year, are covered in a beautiful velvet. As autumn approaches, the bucks (male deer) will start to bunch up and re-establish dominance and mating rites with the does in the herd. When walking through the woods this time of year, I have seen the bare wood of small trees where bucks have rubbed the bark off to shed the velvet coating on their horns. Once the bucks are in rut (looking for a mate), we can see the scrapes of bare earth in the woods. The bucks drag their antlers back and forth to create a bare spot. The bigger the deer, usually the bigger the antlers, and hence a bigger scrape. This scrape marks their territory, and lets the female still traveling with the herd know where to find this buck. The female's hormones are active at this time of year, and they will urinate in the scrape to announce their presence to the buck. For the most part, mating season ends (somewhat artificially) when in October the bow hunters arrive.
A bow hunter doesn't stand much chance of killing a deer without a working knowledge of deer behavior. Whitetail bucks may still be checking their scrapes, walking through the woods looking for any late arrivals, to their neck of the woods. With this in mind, bow hunters will seek out signs of buck scrapes and use a tree stand to wait above these scrapes. The need for a tree stand is further testimony to the acute senses of the Whitetail, especially the males. A person must be off the ground, above the line of sight, up wind, and remain motionless to avoid detection. You need not look for deer in the direction the wind is blowing. I have never been approached by one walking into the wind, in my direction. I have also alerted many deer to my presence by turning my head too quickly to see them. Before we had tree stands, my grandfather and I always cleared away any leaves from our lookout, to avoid rustling which they can pick up with their sensitive hearing. For the most part, bow hunters are few in number and spend long hours quietly going unnoticed. The whitetails tend to travel in large family groups this time of year. The does and fawns travel together, with the bucks anywhere from 500 yards to half a mile behind.
Trails in the woods are a good indicator of the whitetail's feeding and traveling routine. To find a trail is easy. First I drive around until I find signs of a crossing at a road. From there, in one direction may be one of the corn fields or apple orchards on Bull Run Mountain. The bedding area can be found in the other direction, usually close to where the deer were born. These animals make their homes in difficult-to-access places, usually deep within thickets of Mountain Laurel. Whitetail feel comfortable and safe in the immediate vicinity where they grew up, and will go to great lengths, taking sizable risk to get there. Besides apples and corn, deer love acorns. Unfortunately, acorns are only abundant every three years. Acorns were in short supply this year on Bull Run, so the deer were traveling up to two miles every night to feed, and returning in the morning before daybreak. When I was young, I used to be amazed at the accuracy of my grandfather's predictions when the deer would arrive at a road crossing or a power line. He would say, "Be alert because they cross here at 8:10 am" or "Look alive, they'll be coming through here in fifteen minutes." He was never off by more than five minutes. This was no trick, but the result of repeated, careful observation and a knowledge of the "lay of the land." By knowing where the corn fields are, with respect to the bedding grounds, we would approximate and follow the route the deer travel. We would then study the landscape, looking for the route that offered the most cover, usually a thickly vegetated valley. Some of the most frequently traveled routes look like worn foot paths through a tunnel of vines and bushes. Whitetail start developing these feeding patterns in spring and continue them until forced to break from their habits, and run for their lives.
On November first, the quiet solitude of Bulll Run Moutain is broken by the boom of long steel muskets and the smell of burning black powder. With gunfire in the forest, the whitetails become noticeably more cautious, and weary of people. After being shot at, herds break up into small groups of five or less and no longer walk their feeding trails, but run through the woods at a sprint. When startled, the whitetails earn their name by throwing their tails in the air, and revealing a bright white flag. During black powder season the deer will wait until dark to travel for food, and will return to their bedding areas earlier, before first light. Only when they are alerted to an approaching hunter, will they stray from their bedding spot. Even then, they will usually circle around, behind the visitor, and back to their daytime hideout. Black powder season is a mixed blessing for the whitetail, for although these hunters tend to be few in number, they still help the deer against what is to come by letting the deer know they are no longer alone in the forest.
Come November 21st, Bull Run Mountain sounds like a battle ground. With so many hunters participating in rifle and shotgun season (rifles and shotguns make killing an animal easy), the woods are overrun with Rambos. By midseason, finding a whitetail on the mountain is difficult. The few stragglers you come across are usually alone, and seem confused to the point that they may even run towards you when they are startled. This winter I was under the impression that the entire population had been all but wiped out. I guess I hadn't given the Whitetail enough credit. They are intelligent, and know where to go when the woods grow loud with the noise of modern guns and crowded with human beings. There are many large tracks of land that are posted as off-limits to hunting, and it seems the deer, given this chance, migrate to these sanctuaries. When the smoke clears and the predators leave, the whitetail deer gradually return to their cycle of life.
My grandfather and I, along with one of his hunting buddies, have made numerous trips to Bull Run Mountain. We have hunted during bow and arrow and black powder season. We also return to the forest during February to watch the deer once again begin to group into small herds of ten to twenty animals. Although they flee at first sight of our car, we have caught many glimpses of twenty or so tails bouncing out of a field and into the woods. Over the month the herds number fifty strong, and the approach of a car doesn't seem to alarm them too much.
We often visit the wood in the later spring, and leave salt licks, corn, and apples on nearby mountains. This is part of an effort which we participate in with other hunters and nature-lovers; the idea is to encourage the deer to move to a less popular hunting area. By spring the acorn supply is long since gone, so the deer welcome 100 pound bags of feed corn, and bushels of old apples bought for a dollar at Giant. Patches of bare dirt can be found where once there was a salt lick. The rain dissolves the block, and the deer will dig for it until not a trace is left. The salt promotes good health and large antlers in the bucks. The first few times we left the food, the deer would not touch it for a week. Now they stand fifty yards away, and wait for us to leave. The feast begins as soon as we are out of sight. If the deer become comfortable on this mountain, they will not have to travel through the 'war zone' next season to feed. The younger, first deer will stand a better change of surviving long enough to reproduce.
It never was easy for any species to survive, and the whitetail did not evolve in ways which would enable them to fight any other animal equipped with and able to shoot a modern gun. They are not yet an endangered species, and they are still surviving in this suburban wilderness. One wonders what these human beings would do were some creature to come along with equipment which millions of years have not enabled them to cope with and slaughter them.