Passing of OFI Board Member and Hollywood Legend: Norman Lear

The legendary Norman Lear (source: normanlear.com)
The legendary Norman Lear (source: normanlear.com)

Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) is greatly saddened by the passing of Norman Lear, a legendary television and film producer and writer, as well as longtime friend of OFI. Norman was 101 years old when he died at home on December 5, 2023. We extend our deepest sympathies to his family and loved ones.

Several years before Norman Lear’s television career took off and before OFI’s Founder and President Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas started her work studying and protecting orangutans, the lives of these two soon-to-be legends became intertwined. As a graduate student at UCLA in the 1960s, Dr. Galdikas worked as a house sitter for the Lear family. Norman and Dr. Galdikas kept in touch over the decades, and Norman became a board member of OFI after it was established in 1986. He played an important role in OFI’s growth and success in its mission to save and protect orangutans over the years. He once said that Dr. Galdikas occupied a “small but significant corner” in his life.

In 2005, a tiny orphaned infant orangutan arrived at OFI’s Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ) in Indonesian Borneo. The infant male, whose mother was most likely killed by humans, weighed only 6 pounds. Dr. Galdikas named this special, resilient infant “Lear” in honor of Norman Lear, who had also survived a challenging childhood. Orangutan Lear spent the early years in which he should have been with his mother amongst a unique kind of “nontraditional family.” Loving human caregivers and other orphaned orangutans made up his social and emotional support system at the OCCQ. Lear was affectionate and exuberant as a youngster, known for pulling pranks on his caregivers and rolling around playfully in burlap sacks. As he grew older, he became an expert climber and developed necessary forest survival skills.

Juvenile orangutan Lear playing with a burlap sack during forest school, 2012

Orangutan Lear’s chance to return to the wild finally arrived in 2022. OFI staff and Indonesian government Forestry Department officials from the National Park released Lear at a remote forest site deep within Tanjung Puting National Park, far from humans who might seek to harm him or his habitat. OFI rangers followed Lear for as long as they could to ensure he was adjusting to life in the wild, but within a few days they lost track of him. Lear seems to have chosen to forge his own path exploring the vast forest, encountering other wild orangutans along the way, and likely siring offspring of his own. But we will always be there to give him any care he may need should he make his way back to one of OFI’s forest camps.

Adult orangutan Lear wandering into the forest on the day of his release back to the wild, in 2022

Norman Lear’s legacy will live on through the way he changed the entertainment industry and the stories we now dare to tell. He will live on through the impact of his social and political activism and philanthropic work. He will of course live on through all the individuals he knew and loved. But he will also live on in the great forest of Borneo, where his majestic namesake roams for miles, high in the trees, living the wild life that is his birthright. May orangutan Lear’s descendants know the freedom that he was robbed of for so many years.

Thank you, Norman, for all you did for humans, and all you did for orangutans. Rest in peace.

Dr.Biruté Mary Galdikas with Mr. Norman Lear

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