Helping Gibbons: The Story of Dea – Official Orangutan Foundation International Site
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2014-Nov-07_HelpinggibbonsNov19_006_Dea_kab_wmlowresAt Orangutan Foundation International’s OCCQ, we have a policy of accepting and providing safe sanctuary and medical care to any animal in need. We work primarily with orangutans but at times are called upon to help other Borneo wildlife. This is how I came to meet Dea, the baby gibbon.

Like orangutans, gibbons are apes (They are commonly called “small apes” while orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos are “great apes”). Like orangutans, gibbons suffer at the hands of humans. They are hunted, their offspring stolen from the wild and sold as pets in Indonesia and abroad. Along with habitat deforestation, the illegal wildlife trade is bringing ape populations to the brink of extinction. Gibbons are endangered. Keeping them as pets is illegal but this doesn’t stop locals and foreigners from purchasing these animals on the black market. Unfortunately, this was Dea’s life before she arrived at the OCCQ.

2014-Nov-01_HelpinggibbonsNov19_002_Dea_kab_wmlowresDea was found in a private home in Pangkalan Bun where she lived in isolation in the backyard, confined to a small wooden box with no shelter from the rain. When Dea was first spotted by an OFI volunteer it was noticed that she had a small wound on her finger. As is not unusual for gibbons living in captivity, Dea had begun to self-mutilate. By the time rescuers arrived to bring her to the Care Center 24 hours later, she had eaten most of her own two fingers and was working on a third. It seemed her left hand was numb.

Dea arrived at the OCCQ still wearing the urine and feces soaked baby clothes with which her owners had dressed her. She was small, fragile, and weak. She seemed to have no feeling in her mutilated hand. I sat with her holding her small body as OFI veterinarians amputated the two fingers, which had been partially chewed off. Upon further examination it was apparent that Dea’s arm was badly broken. The bones had long since healed in their shattered position, leaving her with a strangely twisted arm. Our veterinarians suspected that this might have been the cause for the numbness in her hand, although we don’t know for certain. Either way it became clear that Dea would only have one working hand.

2014-Nov-01_HelpinggibbonsNov19_001_Dea_kab_wmlowres There was something horribly tragic in Dea’s loss, a gibbon without the use of her hand. How could she survive? If orangutans are the “people of the forest,” than gibbons are surely the acrobats of the forest. I thought of the first wild gibbon I saw more than 4 months ago in the forest of Tanjung Puting at Camp Leakey. Standing by a feeding platform, staring through my camera lens waiting for an orangutan to arrive I almost missed the large white-bearded gibbon that stared down at me from a tall tree. But there was no missing the loud whooping call that emanated from his chest a moment later. I stared up in amazement as he flew over my head like a bird, his long, graceful arms catapulting his body from tree to tree with swift, effortless motion. Between branches, he danced circles around our heads in an elegant aerial performance, worthy of Cirque du Soleil. To see a gibbon swing in the trees is to witness the forest’s greatest trapeze artist in action!

2014-Nov-06_HelpinggibbonsNov19_003_Dea_kab_wmlowresBut now I was sitting on the steps of the OCCQ veterinary clinic. Looking down at Dea, still wearing her urine soaked baby clothes, I couldn’t help but think of that Camp Leakey gibbon. Physically, Dea looked just like him and yet Dea’s life was so removed from that of her wild counterpart that it broke my heart that, because of human greed, Dea would never be able to “brachiate”- the primate ability to swing from branch to branch. I thought of all the orangutans I’ve met in my stay in Borneo. Some have lost a finger or a hand, some have lost an arm or their eyesight, and all have lost much more- their mothers, their childhood, and their freedom. I’ve learned from them of their incredible ability to endure. I knew there was still hope for this small gibbon.

Following her surgery, Dea needed a full-time baby-sitter to make sure she didn’t continue to self-mutilate. So, I took on responsibility of primary caregiver to Dea. We became close friends during her stay at the Care Center. The first thing I noticed was her docile demeanor. Dea wanted nothing more than physical contact and motherly care. She seemed only at peace when she was being held, to the extent that she would panic whenever I tried to place her off my lap. Usually, gibbons her age in the wild were beginning the weaning process and starting to establish more independence in the forest. After spending significant time with her it became clear that Dea, who had lived her young life as a pet in a box, hadn’t had much experience using her body. It was about time she built up some strength and confidence in the trees.

Initially, Dea’s mobility seemed very limited. She would “hoot” in fear when I tried to place her in a low hanging mango tree. She was shaky when she walked and uncoordinated when she tried to climb. Trees were intimidating to little Dea. With only one hand, she was unsure of how to swing herself from limb to limb.

2014-Nov-07_HelpinggibbonsNov19_009_Dea_ael_wm Finally, after speaking with another volunteer we had the idea to bring Dea to the pumpkin patch, a shady garden crisscrossed with hanging vines and small wooden poles. To my delight, Dea immediately took to her new “playground”! The vines and wooden poles were thin enough for Dea to wrap her small hand around and there were so many that she never felt unsafe. I sat with Dea for hours, watching her play and explore her pumpkin patch jungle gym! As she grew more comfortable, she began to use her limp hand for balance and leverage. I couldn’t believe the improvement she made in such a short span of time. Her nervousness faded away. Dea was in her element for the first time since her captivity began.

2014-Nov-07_HelpinggibbonsNov19_010_Dea_ael_wmlowres From that point on, I regularly brought Dea to her pumpkin patch to practice climbing. As she rested on a vine laden wooden pole, I would bring her fruit and leaves to eat. She had a hearty, ever-growing appetite and would try almost anything. While in captivity in Pangkalan Bun, her diet consisted of milk and packaged snacks, so I was excited to see her share the same enthusiasm for bananas, mangos, and fresh young leaves from the forest. I even watched her snack on ants.

Dea’s hand healed nicely in a short span of time but the only way to stop her self-mutilating for good was to join her with other gibbons. Because the OCCQ does not have an established gibbon rehabilitation program, we made arrangements for her to go to a local gibbon sanctuary where there are many more like her. Gibbons are social animals and it’s important that they have access to others of their kind. This gibbon sanctuary, near Palangka Raya, is run by Pak Chanee who, interestingly enough, as a young man was first inspired by Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas’ work with orangutans.

2014-Nov-07_HelpinggibbonsNov19_011_Dea_kab_wmlowresBy the end of her stay at the OCCQ, Dea’s confidence was soaring. Watching her happily snack on leaves while she twirled around in pumpkin vines, her excitement in exploring her new found freedom was palpable. I felt so happy that we were able to provide Dea with a second chance.

Dea is one of the lucky ones. For every rescued gibbon or orangutan, there are countless more being held prisoners as “exotic” house-pets all across Southeast Asia. But as wild animals, they will never be happy without their freedom. For as content that Dea seemed on my lap, she was infinitely happier to be outside in the sunshine, climbing around the vines, and eating leaves and insects. I know Dea has a long journey ahead of her, but I know that she now has something she never had before, a chance at freedom, and a gibbon version of hope and happiness.

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  • Aunt Linny
    2014-12-02 at 2:27 PM

    You are so lucky to be there!!!!! Juliet would love to hear from you – she is crazy about animals and nature. God bless you, Katie

  • Karen Keller
    2014-12-02 at 3:19 PM

    I’m so glad you are there and helping out these animals who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance. Thanks Kaitlyn!

  • linda
    2014-12-03 at 4:30 AM

    I’m so glad you were able to rescue her from that horrible situation. Keep up the fight. Thanks

  • Aunt Hollie
    2014-12-04 at 1:07 AM

    Your article brought tears of sadness and then a big wide smile . You are such a talented writer Kaitlyn! So happy that Dea was rescued and put in your loving, caring, nurturing, compassionate hands. I am very happy for you that you are able to work where your heart is. I love you Katie!

  • S.Paulin
    2014-12-09 at 4:48 AM

    God bless yur work!

  • Ella Snow
    2014-12-16 at 6:33 AM

    Thank you so much for making a real difference in the life of this animal! I loved this story..

  • Tami M
    2015-01-05 at 9:15 PM

    It’s amazing that you can save animals and give them a chance to have a better life. Keep up the good work and keep making such impressing miracles.

  • Barbara
    2015-01-27 at 5:01 AM

    Do you have an update on little Dea?

    1. Kaitlyn
      2015-02-25 at 8:31 PM

      We hear Dea is doing really well! After a 30 day quarantine, she was introduced to a group of other gibbons, with many her age. She is no longer self-mutilating and her hand healed well!

  • Whitney Wright
    2015-03-17 at 4:35 AM

    This entry, like many others, was really hard to get thru. I have to admit, when you were talking about her fingers, amputation, and broken arm…I had to skip a few lines or a paragraph or two. I force myself to get thru these stories to help educate myself on “true life”…the sad, hard, true situation of what’s really going on…I hate it…but I love apes/monkeys so, SO MUCH that I need to know what to do…as my part. Is there any update on how she has progressed since her time at the gibbon sanctuary? The pumpkin patch is such a genius idea. My main question, I suppose, is…is there any progress in the movement of outlawing these as pets in Asia and such? I see many instagram accounts and such based out of Dubai, Russia, etc…where they are being sold…and it worries me abt what the “behind the scenes “are like… Is there any movement in making this against the law…or making their law enforcements actually seek to improve this problem? Thank you for sharing this story. It’s heartbreaking…but it would also be a dream for me to be a caregiver to any of these apes/monkeys…to help improve their situation. The IDEA world…there would be no situation like this…there would be little to no need for trying to right the wrongs. Humans mistreating and disrespecting these beautiful beings. I know I am all over the place with this reply. It’s late…and reading her story just literally has broken off another piece of my heart. Thank you for your wonderful contribution to these beautiful souls.

    1. linda
      2015-03-18 at 10:25 PM

      Thank you for so eloquently expressing how I and so many feel as we read these blogs. Please keep contributing your input.

  • MarJij65
    2015-06-29 at 5:44 PM

    I just don’t understand why people can be so ignorant, My God, the baby was eating her hand!!!! They didn’t have a clue something was not right? I don’t care who you are or how much money you have, it doesn’t give you the right to buy something/kill Moms to take an animal you don’t have the first inkling of taking care of!!!! She’s dressed in baby clothes? Seriously? If there was any enforceable law that would even fine people for having primates maybe it would stop!!!!
    I’m grateful to people like you Kaitlyn for being there to help!! My main focus has always been the Orangutans, but now I see it’s not just them. Thanks for all you do

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