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Phoenix Zoo orangutans get a bigger, better place to hang

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Posted: Saturday, April 9, 2011 2:56 pm

The duchess of the Phoenix Zoo finally has a palace that befits her.

Duchess, the 51-year-old matriarch of the zoo’s orangutan family and the oldest Bornean orangutan in North America, is feeling grass under her feet for the first time in decades, after moving into a brand-new home.

Called “Orang-Hutan: People of the Forest,” the much-hyped exhibit opens to the public for the first time on Monday.

“All of us are really excited, especially for Duchess. She was jungle-caught, but she probably doesn’t remember a lot of those natural sensations, and it’s nice to give her a place to live out her golden years where she can experience some of that again,” says zookeeper Bob Keeseeker.

To call the space an upgrade is an understatement.

Named after the Malay words for person (“orang”) and forest (“hutan”), the exhibit gives the four orangutans five times more space outdoors and 15 times more space indoors. It includes two outdoor yards with bamboo climbing surfaces, a stream, specially engineered “sway poles” that “give” the way real trees would under an orangutan’s force, and a tree full of holes where zookeepers can hide treats.

Eventually, fledgling trees and shrubs planted around the enclosure’s edge will grow in, providing a dense, forest-like environment and easy-to-reach natural snacks.

Indoors, there are bedrooms and medical facilities, as well as dayrooms where, for the first time ever, people will be able to watch the orangutans interact with zookeepers during training sessions.

Visitors will also find multiple observation points, including an air-conditioned “billik” (the Malay word for room) with floor-to-ceiling windows where guests can sit face-to-face with the primates.

The project cost $3.7 million and is the zoo’s most ambitious undertaking since the park opened in 1962 — the year Duchess came to live at the zoo — says orangutan experience team member Jeremy Barlow.

“We wanted to give them a home that would challenge them more mentally and physically,” he says. “By creating longer, wider, bigger spaces with options to go up or down, they have so many more options for how and where to spend their time. Outside, they have almost 20 times more vertical space.”

Since 1975, the orangutans lived in a concrete, pit-like enclosure with a single climbing platform that crowded them together — not something orangutans in the wild prefer, says Barlow. It also crammed visitors at a single observation deck 15 feet away from the primates.

Keeseeker says the orangs relish their new digs.

Twenty-four-year-old Michael has staked out a shady area all his own. Bess, Duchess’ 31-year-old daughter, enjoys long-overdue “me time” high on a platform, where she can keep watch over her daughter, the mischievous, energetic “toddler” of the group.

“Kasih is the one always pestering the others to play with her, and she picks on her grandma a lot. They’re finally getting the chance to get a little space from her, and she’s getting to explore her world in a way she never could before. She’s trying everything out. She didn’t know there were all these things she could do as a ‘kid,’ like somersaults in the grass,” says Barlow.

A portion of the primate’s new home is still under construction; its second outdoor yard will open in May. Eventually, says Barlow, the space could hold up to eight orangutans as well as other animals, such as gibbons.

The billik also gives the zoo space for another of its goals: educating visitors about orangutans and highlighting the zoo’s conservation efforts in Borneo, where the primates are endangered.

“When I started here five years ago, there was a sign at their old exhibit that said orangutans in the wild would be extinct in five years,” says Barlow. “It’s five years later, and they’re actually doing a little better, but this is a dire situation. We’re going to be able to show people what they can do, and what the zoo is doing to help.” 

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6818 or

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