For some, a visit of a few minutes with the San Diego Zoo’s eight orangutans just isn’t enough. These folks--the Orang Gang--prefer to spend an entire day watching the red-haired apes through the viewing window, waiting for Ken Allen, or Clyde, or Satu, or Karen, or any of the other four, to recognize them and come over. Then, as if glass and evolution didn’t separate them, the orangutan might sit nearby, occasionally offering a thick kiss or a high-five.
“They’re here every day, as much a part of the scenery as the animals, really,” says Christina Simmons, the zoo’s public relations manager.
If the gang has a main character, it’s Twyla Baker, 42, a lab assistant who spends every Saturday at the zoo and puts out the group’s semiannual newsletter, providing 100 people from as far away as Japan with updates on the apes and their human admirers. She also reprints news about the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra, where, during the past 50 years, the orangutan population is estimated to have dropped by as much as 90%, to between 10,000 and 20,000.
Baker fell in love with the zoo and its animals when she stayed with her grandparents in San Diego during her nomadic childhood as an Air Force kid. After moving to San Diego 15 years ago and revisiting the zoo, she made an unexpected friend--an adult female orangutan named Bubbles.
“She would come and sit with me about five times a day,” Baker says. “And that was my connection. You look into those eyes and you’re stuck for life.”
Baker soon made other friends both in and out of the orangutan compound. About nine years ago, she met fellow orangutan enthusiasts B.J. McDuffee and Lola Edmonds-Lamont, the first gang members.
“We started out with two,” McDuffee says. “Twyla loved Bubbles, and sat by her Saturdays for quite a few years. That’s how we got to be friends.”
Gang members often share stories, such as the one McDuffee tells about the young ape named Karen who used to take a stick and set it up against the enclosure glass and climb it.
“Then she got her foot caught and was dangling upside down,” McDuffee says. “I was getting ready to run for the keeper when big ol’ Clyde lumbers over the hill, goes right up to her, unhooks the foot, looks her all over and puts her on the ground. She wanted to keep her stick, but he took it away and broke it in two so she’d never hurt herself again. It really was something. You stand there watching this, and it blows your mind.”
Orang Gang membership is informal. You’re selected by the current members. (Or, more accurately, by the orangs.) “I’m starting to see more young people come up to me and ask me for the newsletter and stuff,” Baker says. “Maybe we’ll be able to evolve.”
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Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus). . .
. . . are one of the four great apes (with gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees) and the only one from Asia.
. . . share 97% DNA with humans.
. . . were thought by the Malay to be people hiding in trees to avoid being put to work. Hence their name Orang Hutan, Malay for “man of the forest.”
. . . live 35 to 40 years in the wild and an average 50 years in captivity. (Males average 250 pounds and stand about 4 1/2 feet tall; females average about 90 pounds.)
. . . will probably be extinct in the wild in 20 years.