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Orangutans in our midst (well, not far, anyway)

The International Orangutan Center opened Saturday Indianapolis Zoo.  |  Supplied photo

The International Orangutan Center opened Saturday at the Indianapolis Zoo. | Supplied photo

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Updated: June 30, 2014 12:32PM



Indianapolis offers so much to do on a visit, and now add the International Orangutan Center at the Indianapolis Zoo, with an opportunity for visitors to get face to face with members of one of the most endangered species on Earth.

The Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center opened Saturday after eight years of planning. Visitors can interact with orangutans in a place designed to be a physically and mentally stimulating habitat for its residents, while also serving as a facility for research, public education and global conservation outreach.

“This is such a different visitor experience. The orangutans come right up to the glass and look into your eyes,” zoo public relations manager Judy Palermo said.

Orangutans once were found in the wild in India, China and throughout much of the Near East and Far East, but today they are found in the wild only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

All eight of the animals in this exhibit were born in captivity. Most previously were involved in the entertainment industry. They now reside in the high and expansive concrete, metal and glass facility, specially designed as an “interpretation of the orangutan’s natural environment that will encourage and stimulate the normal range of orangutan behavior,” while also allowing for maximum visitor interaction and “groundbreaking research,” according to the zoo.

“I think kids will love seeing how interesting and intelligent they are, and what individual personalities they have,” Palermo said. “The females especially love children. Rocky, he loves to see your ink. He checks out tattoos and jewelry, too.”

Visitors can watch videos of keepers’ stories about the individual animals in the center, or read interesting facts about orangutans (including that they have the longest interval between births in the animal kingdom, eight years). You also can watch ongoing research using interactive technology in the learning studio.

I watched as Rocky, a 9-year-old male, chose to enter the studio from one of the series of above, below or behind-the-scenes paths in the center. He looked around the room, then quickly brought a stool up near a touch screen by the glass wall in front of the visitor seating.

A little later, Dr. Robert Schumaker, orangutan expert and president of conservation at the zoo, stood near Rocky. Together, they did a research demonstration typical of what visitors will see regularly in the learning studio, as the apes identify objects by touching an electronic screen and receiving food rewards for each correct answer.

“Rocky is beginning to learn the symbol for ‘apple,’ ” Schumaker said. “He gets a reward when he correctly identifies the symbol. We start with only the symbol for ‘apple,’ and he’s rewarded when he touches that on the screen. As he progresses, we add other symbols to make his selection more complicated. We also record and track his progress.”

Soon, visitors also will be able to interact electronically with the apes, doing activities such as fingerpainting.

Schumaker discussed why this facility was created.

“All orangutans are severely endangered in the wild,” he said. “We have an opportunity to do a few things here. First, we have 1 million visitors a year; that’s potentially 1 million voices to support orangutan conservation.

“One thing most people don’t know is how bright they are, and how similar we are. I think when people know that, they will be inclined to help those in the wild. Also, the animals here like challenges — that’s what their minds need and what they are getting here. Then there is the science. The research here will help global efforts to gain a better understanding of these special animals.”

Visitors also can get an orangutan’s-eye view of the exhibit, the zoo and the downtown area, on the Skyline, a gondola ride that takes visitors up 50 feet high along the “trail,” a series of aerial cables, bridges and platforms that the apes can use to move through the exhibit.

“We hope that people will fall in love with these animals and want to learn a little more,” Palermo said. “And we want to let people know how severely endangered these animals are, and how they can make a difference, even with little changes that you can make every day.”

She gave a few examples of ways people can make a difference within the exhibit.

“Visitors will have a chance to make a donation to a project that plants trees in orangutan habitat. Even $5 makes a difference,” she said. “You can also make a difference by the choices of products you buy.

“Palm oil is in many products we all use. It can be made legally and sustainably, but when made illegally it’s often in ways that destroy the forests where orangutans live. We encourage consumers to find and buy products made by companies that make sustainable products. And we all get to vote. Vote for candidates who care about the environment.”

Palermo recommends that those planning to visit the Indianapolis Zoo and the International Orangutan Center come early in the week to get the best experience.

She said the zoo offers savings for those who buy tickets in advance, and further savings are offered on days when lower attendance is projected. Basic admission varies, depending on the date, from $14.95 to $24.95 for adults, and $11.45 to $18.95 for children. Admission to the International Orangutan Center is free with zoo admission.

The Indianapolis Zoo is at 1200 W. Washington St. in the White River State Park. Hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. CDT Mondays through Thursdays, and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. CDT Fridays through Sundays and holidays. Parking is $6 per vehicle.

Visit www.indianapoliszoo.com to order advance tickets, get tips on visiting the zoo, learn more about the International Orangutan Center and its orangutans, and take the quiz to see which of the eight resident orangutans you are most like.



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