I have only been active three months as an enrichment volunteer at Orangutan Foundation International’s (OFI) Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ) in Central Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan Tengah) and my experience so far could hardly have been more enriching! This is true not only because I have learned much about Indonesian culture, language, food, and customs but also because I have been able to spend time with more than 300 orangutans.

Learning about Indonesia first-hand has been an incredible experience for me. Aside from Mexico, the land of my birth, and the United States, I had never before visited any other country.

2015-11-28_OCCQ_Rodrigo_SGB_001_WM_highresBefore coming to the OCCQ in Borneo, I had worked as a volunteer at the Mexico City Zoo. I had expected each of the hundreds of different species housed there to react very differently to me. Before I came to Borneo, despite how obvious it may seem, I had never imagined the diversity of personalities that I would find in just one species, the Bornean orangutan. One of the reasons why I was initially interested in animal enrichment was because it gave me an opportunity to closely observe animal behavior, to know individual personalities, and to get a good idea of what various animals are like. Ultimately, with luck and perseverance, I wanted to establish a connection with them. Many people believe that connections established with animals when they are given enrichment are merely due to, or a reflection of, a positive stimulus. I did not believe that before I came to Borneo and now, I am convinced that people who hold that view are wrong.

Every day I give enrichment to different orangutans at the Care Center. I am astonished at the differences I observe among the various orangutan individuals. And to think that, at some point, we once thought that humans were the only animals with personalities! Every time I sit down to observe how each of the orangutans reacts to the enrichment, I witness the variety of responses that are the result of different individual life histories, personalities, and skills.

Some of the enrichment that I give the orangutans consists of “parcels” of native foliage, such as edible ferns or tree twigs and leaves, wrapped in a small locally woven mat made up of rottans or reeds, tied together with a vine. The inside of the parcel contains varieties of edibles, such as vitamin gummies, honey, oatmeal porridge, popcorn, peanuts, small native fruits or berries collected from the wild etc., in small quantities. The local enrichment officer and I spend hours putting together these parcels. We try to make them as appealing to the orangutans as we can.

2015-12-01_OCCQ_Parcels_SGB_WM_highresSome of the orangutans will show curiosity, looking at the enrichment parcels from different angles before deciding to open them. Some use their hands to open the parcels. Others use their teeth, showing a pretty nifty ability to obtain food easily. Others display their creativity by using the different parts of the enrichment parcels as some kind of toys after consuming the food bits inside. Others simply look for the fastest way to get the food bits out, destroying the carefully rolled parcels without paying much attention to the constituent parts. Each orangutan seemingly has his/her own way of being so we can not expect them to all act in the same way or to like the same things, including food. This is what makes being part of the OCCQ team so challenging, delightful, and, for me, enriching.

Another funny and charming thing about orangutans is that, after I give them enrichment parcels and sit down to observe them, I often end up being the one observed. I sit there trying to guess what they are thinking but when I look at them closely, it seems that they are asking themselves the exact same question. I think that this curiosity and awareness is the reason why I have always felt a connection with orangutans. Now it is the reason why I wake up every day trying to imagine new kinds of enrichment, attempting to challenge the curiosity and intelligence of this wonderful, enchanting species, the orangutan.

7 Comments

  • Sophie Guest
    2015-12-05 at 10:55 pm

    Thank you Rodrigo. I have really enjoyed reading this and want to share it with my friends.
    I have visited the OCCQ twice this year ( vey lucky I am!) and I have seen the kind of enrichment parcels you talk about due to a very interesting talk by Ibu Mariyati. (I am not sure if I have her name right, but she is a lovely woman whose devotion to what she does made a great impression on me)
    I love hearing about your curiosity and your discoveries and your sensitivity to the different individuals you have found among the orang-utans at the center. They are lucky to have you and I hope you will inspire many people to both help look after the orphans and to understand orang-utans better.

    By the way, Rodrigo, If you ever go near Jogjakarta, do get in touch with the Mexican Consul , Warwick Purser who lives in Tembi south of central Yogyakarta. . His office is at the small hotel D’Omah Yogyakarta which is a very nice place to stay, his former home. He is an Australian but clearly very connected to Mexico as well as Indonesia and I met many interesting Mexican artists with him. Just so you know!

    all good wishes
    Sophie

  • Allison Leach
    2015-12-06 at 8:03 am

    What a wonderful article describing the rewarding experience of Enrichment Volunteering! I could not agree more with you, Rodrigo! Ibu Maryanti, the Enrichment Coordinator, runs an important and inspiring department at the OCCQ, and I am so glad you are there to support her wonderful work!!! Bless you both!

    1. Jill Baryluk
      2015-12-09 at 4:41 pm

      I loved your story Rodrigo! I was fortunate to spend 12 days with the babies in 2012 and wish that it could have been longer. You are getting an incredible opportunity that will stay with you forever! Thanks for doing what you are doing. OFI needs more people like you!

  • 2015-12-06 at 8:57 pm

    Great insight! Thanks for writing it.

  • Julia Hyland
    2015-12-23 at 7:15 am

    I have just stumbled across your article and what a joy it was to read.

    Absolutely wonderful and my thanks for sharing your experiences with us.

    I was lucky enough to visit Borneo earlier this year and saw wild Orangutans every day, the first sighting reducing me to tears………….

    Thank you and again look forward to hearing further articles you may write.

    Kindest Regards

    Julia
    Norwich
    England

  • Barbara
    2016-01-08 at 8:37 pm

    You sound like you and the orangutans are both getting a lot out of your time at OCCQ. Developing enrichment is challenging. I volunteer at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore (USA), and have worked on enrichment for zoo animals. It is fun, and allows you to be creative. We use firehoses to make hammocks for animals, as well as making puzzle feeders out of PVC pipe.

    I visited the OCCQ about eight years ago, and was very impressed with the work that is being done there.

    I very much enjoy reading about your experiences.

    Barbara
    Baltimore, MD, USA

  • Elizabeth
    2016-01-21 at 7:50 am

    I have not had the honor of sitting with these forest people (orangutans). I am inspired by both of your accounts, and surprised there are not more from other volunteers.

    As I watched various videos, looked through photos, and read about your experiences, I wondered and wished if it could perhaps be possible for me to share with these beings too.

    I will be looking into it. Blessings!

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