Orangutans, Our Cousins...
Our Spitting Cousins

I help babysit for Jack and Owen each week. I loved caring for my three children as they began to journey down their yellow brick roads of life. When my granddaughter was born, I loved that time together also.

However, my children are in their mid-30s to early 40s and my granddaughter is 20. In addition, I am much older now. I have also danced with death a couple of times and understand quite clearly that I am not immortal. That truth is difficult to accept. Nonetheless, having successful danced twice with death, I get that reality reluctantly. I also benefit from the realization that I have a limited amount of time here on Earth. It enables me to enjoy as much time as I have left especially the younger two grandchildren.

Taking care of Jack and Owen who will be five and three this summer is a sheer delight. Having gone down the road of raising children, I do not worry as much about all the issues confronting parents that I had with my own children or granddaughter. Nothing that I worried about years ago occurred when the kids were babies. What did happen were things about which I never thought would arise. Therefore, why worry; it is a waste of precious time.

As a 72-year old grandfather, I spend more time listening to their questions and what concerns them. They love to visit the zoo in Indy, which just recently added a large, two-story structure to house their orangutans. Jack and Owen love to watch the orangutans both playing inside their home and climbing around outside.

Orangutans at the zoo Orangutans at the zoo
Orangutans at the zoo

After taking them to the zoo, which included visiting the orangutans, I told them about a student in one of my classes that once worked with orangutans at another zoo. He told me how the orangutans would watch him enter their enclosure to either feed or cleanup after them. They would watch him carefully as he entered their area. If he spent enough time inside their living space, one of the orangutans would go over to their water supply, get a drink, then sauntered over to him, and spit its mouthful of water at him. He had been warned in advance to watch out for this prank. It seems that orangutans love this humorous game, which they played upon all the attendants.

The zoologist explained that orangutans view this as their expression of humor. All the orangutans seemed to enjoy this routine. They were not attempting to be aggressive or mean; they merely wanted to have fun with their caretakers.

Jack and Owen thought that this was funny that the orangutans got away with something that their parents did not allow...spitting at each other. However, I explained that in the orangutan world spitting was not considered bad behavior. Spitting was merely their way to be funny. The orangutans do have a sense of humor.

My explanation did not seem to make much sense until I explained that when both of them were young, they also had acquired a sense of humor. I told Jack about when he was not even walking that I placed finger food on his highchair for him to eat. On one occasion, I wanted to see what he would think when I motioned to him that I wanted some of his finger food. I merely gestured with my hand coming to my mouth.

It was fascinating. Jack watched me gesture a couple of times. Initially, he seemed confused. Papa gave him food, but he also wanted some food for himself. It took him a few seconds to decide what to do. Then he offered me some of his food. It was his expression of love and concern for me.

Jack feeding Al

Look at his determination on his face. After several months of repeating this on occasion, one day, we went through the same routine. However, this time, as he started to give me the food, he quickly withdrew his hand and laughed. In those couple of months of development, Jack had acquired a sense of humor.

It was not long before Jack's younger brother, Owen, came into the world. You guessed it. I experimented again with the finger food. Owen did the same thing. As with Jack, it was not long before he too developed a sense of humor.

Therefore, we as humans are not far from the distant cousins, the orangutans. Even though we evolved from different primates, we both go back to a common and very distant ancestor. That being said, we are distant cousins and possess a similar sense of humor when playing tricks.

If orangutans and humans are distant cousins, what occurs with people that are from different races or ethnic backgrounds? We do not seem to get along very well in our society. Perhaps, we need to deal with those slight differences between humans better than we do. The orangutans merely spit. All too often, humans hate and kill each other.

In addition, all humans came from the same genetic line, Homo sapiens. We all evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago. It was not until 70-100,000 years ago did some humans migrate out of Africa. We need to learn from our distant cousins, the orangutans, not to hate or kill. We need also to develop a better good sense of humor. Then we can laugh together in peace.

This video is from Indianapolis Zoo Facebook page.

This video is about the new orangutan center at the Indianapolis Zoo.

I wonder how old Jack and Owen will be before they can watch Clint and Clyde.