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Reflections of an Enrichment Volunteer

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Kristin Abt
Enrichment Volunteer of Summer 2011, Kristin Abt

After I left my position as a long-term Environmental Enrichment volunteer at OFI’s Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ) in Kalimantan Tengah, I decided I wanted to share some of my experiences about the amazing place where I interned and the wonderful village that I called home for the summer of 2011.

I came to the Center in June and knew instantly that it was going to be a unique, life-changing experience. The rehabilitation and sanctuary projects were environments in which I learned something new every day about the orangutans, Indonesian and Dayak culture, conservation issues, and myself.

My favorite orangutan, Ginger, eating peanuts and looking into the forest (Photo: Wendy DiPaoli)
My favorite orangutan, Ginger, eating peanuts and looking into the forest (Photo: Wendy DiPaoli)

As a trained zookeeper, I was constantly challenged to temporarily set aside my prior notions about how to work with animals. At the Center, the orangutans are the priority and the staff are not only their caretakers, but also their family. Conversations about the orangutans’ behavior and health could easily be mistaken for conversations about close friends or neighbors. Discussions about the emotive states of certain orangutans, what their favorite foods are, their antics in play, and other details are commonplace. At the Center every orangutan is treated and discussed as an individual.

While trying to implement enrichment activities in the orangutans’ sleeping enclosures at OCCQ, knowledge of individuals is paramount.  The local staff’s knowledge of individual orangutans is extraordinary.   With help from the staff, we learned which orangutans could potentially rip apart hammocks, who would most benefit from raisin-stuffed coconuts, how strong a tire swing needed to be, etc. Communication and getting to know the people, orangutans, and the place was the biggest challenge, but also the biggest reward.

Young orangutan enjoying the rambutan fruit season

Having the chance to interact with orangutans on a daily basis was an absolute privilege. I’ve had my nose tasted, my belly button inspected, my scratches and mosquito bites probed, and my headband stolen, but in spite of this, the most exhilarating experiences for me personally consisted of watching orangutans climbing trees or exploring their enrichment materials. Observing orangutans where they belong (the forest!) and working daily to make their sleeping enclosures as comfortable and interesting as possible gave me so much satisfaction.

The work was challenging: cutting branches and ferns, hammering holes into tires, sawing branches for swings, and hanging items in enclosures.  The work is time-consuming, hard and sometimes tedious. However, caring for animals is never easy from a physical, financial, and emotional perspective. The central shared goal of improving the quality of care for orangutans at the Center keeps staff and volunteers alike dedicated to the mission of OFI.

Daily Fern Collection (“Cari Daun”) for Erichment Parcel Making

I came to the village of Pasir Panjang with the intention of bringing things. I shoved socks and t-shirts inside PVC pipes and vacuum-sealed fleece in my luggage. I brought lists and articles shared with me from the zoo community. I brought donations from family and friends. What I did not realize until I left was that – while all of these material things were useful and important – I gained so much more from this place than what I possibly could contribute to it as one person.

Sunset in Pasir Panjang

People welcomed me into their home as if I were a member of the family, shared meals, coffee breaks, and aerobics exercise at the Center, and invited me into their lives as a friend. The orangutans showed me a glimpse of the challenges that they face as a species, the needs they have as individuals in the rehabilitation process, and the similarities that they share with us as human beings. Although both people and orangutans offered me food (though bananas from Eric, the juvenile orangutan, were appreciated), I much preferred the classic Indonesian nasi goreng and gado-gado!. Both people and orangutans taught me their “language.” And, both people and orangutans made me feel as though I belonged. Muda mudahan, saya bisa kembali nanti dan bantu orangutans lagi! (Hopefully, I can return later and help the orangutans even more!)

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