The Bittersweet Life Story of a Captive Orangutan

Rejected by her mother, Wattana had to learn from the humans around her.

There are more than 4,000 great apes (gorillas, chimps, orangutans, and bonobos) in zoos worldwide. But, unlike the wild primates that naturalists like Jane Goodall or David Attenborough have turned into global media superstars, these captive apes have largely been forgotten, as though their lives behind bars make them less worthy of our attention.  

But for Chris Herzfeld, author of Wattana: An Orangutan in Paris, captive great apes lead lives every bit as interesting as their wild cousins—in some ways, more so. By interacting with their human keepers, they learn skills that wild apes can never master—like the elaborate and beautiful knots that Wattana, a female orangutan, ties.  

Speaking from her home in Naples, Florida, the Belgian author recounts how difficult it is for captive apes to be good mothers, why animals deserve their own biographies, and how orangutans could benefit from a little screen time.  

When we think of studying primates we think of Jane Goodall deep in the jungles of Africa. Why did you decide to study an orangutan at the Jardin des Plantes zoo in the middle of Paris? 

Less attention is paid to captive great apes, and I think it’s important to understand that they also have a life, an existence, in the zoo. I am not saying it’s good to make great apes captive. That’s not my point. But when they are in the zoos there are new opportunities to learn from the human world.  

That was the case with Wattana, a young female orangutan in the Paris zoo. She was raised by humans since she was a baby and learned a different way of life, which combined the human way of life and the great ape way of life.  

I am not a scientist—I am a philosopher of science. For me, it’s really interesting to examine great apes in the human world because you are at the nexus of culture and nature. One thinks an ape in a human world is a kind of denatured ape. Of course, they don’t have the same opportunities as in the wild. But when they are in the human world, they create a new way of life because they have what I call “plasticity,” or behavioral flexibility. That’s one of the main characteristics of both great apes and ourselves.  

You say that we humans don’t feel it necessary to ascribe biographies to animals. But you studied Wattana’s life story in great detail. She didn’t have an easy start, did she? 

For a long time, we thought biographies were only for human beings. But when I spend time with great apes I am thinking they also have a life story; they have personalities. It was the case with Wattana. She was born in Antwerp Zoo, in Belgium, and was rejected by her mother. She was the first daughter, and the mother was very young. We think that, like us, female great apes have a maternal instinct. But that’s not true. They have to learn to be a mother.  

How do they learn to be a mother? By observing other mothers around them. But in zoos, there are not many different individuals in the same enclosure. So the females don’t have the opportunity to learn how to be a mother. This was the case with Wattana’s mother. She didn’t want to touch her baby; she didn’t know how to hold it. So Wattana was left on the ground in the enclosure, and the zookeeper had to take care of her.  

At the age of three months, she was transferred to another zoo in Stuttgart, Germany, which specializes in baby great apes. There she met a woman who was fantastic for her, named Margot Federer. She saw that Wattana was a very special baby and so she named her “little princess.”  

One of the most touching parts of your book is your description of the deep bonds captive great apes form with their keepers. Talk a bit about this. 

That’s really important because captive great apes interact more with human beings than with other apes. Wattana was so sad when her relationship with Margot Federer ended, and she was transferred to Paris at the age of three. There she was alone with her brother and it was very important for her to make new friendships.  

We can talk of interspecies bonds. When great apes are transferred from one zoo to another, they keep these bonds with the zookeeper and with their close relatives, which may be in the same enclosure. In the case of Wattana, her brother was transferred to Hungary. He was very important for Wattana because he was a link with her ancient world in Stuttgart where they lived and slept together.  

Great apes can recognize people who are important to them after a long time. An example of this was the zookeeper of the Jardin des Plantes, Gérard Dousseau. He was very close to the chimpanzees at the zoo. Several years later, after the chimps had been transferred to another zoo, Gerard and his wife visited them. The couple arrived when the great apes were resting in the enclosure. But when the chimpanzees saw Gerard and his wife, they immediately came to the glass. At other times, captive great apes will give gifts to their keepers, like straws pushed through the mesh.  

How and when did you meet Wattana? Put us inside that moment—and talk about Wattana’s extraordinary ability to tie knots

The first time I met Wattana, in Paris, I gave her some string and paper bands, because somebody had told me she could make knots. I was thinking, that’s an important thing because we tend to think that is an activity exclusive to human beings. How is it possible that an ape can make a knot? It was amazing to me! So I decided to give her some strings and ribbons, which she could use to make knots. The first time, I gave her bands of paper, which she made into a knot. Then I began to do other experiments, giving her lots of different materials she could make knots with.  

The most basic function of knots for most of us is tying and untying our shoelaces. Wattana’s skill went far beyond this, to become almost an artistic pursuit, didn’t it? 

To us the knot is functional. We use it mainly to tie our shoelaces. But for Wattana it was a skill that she learned when she entered the world of human beings, because we have a lot of knots in our world. The zookeepers told that, even as an infant, she was very interested in knots. When they tied the laces of their shoes, she was so interested that she would come very close and watch how they made the knots. When she herself then had the opportunity to get some strings, she was able to make a knot in just one day.  

For her it’s more a leisure activity. She is so good at making knots and clearly gets pleasure from it. She made knots with all the materials I gave her: string, shoelaces, pieces of garden hose, rolls of paper, everything! She could even make complex knots to assemble two different things.  

One time she made a kind of art installation in her enclosure by hanging up strings and ribbon. It was so beautiful; the strings were everywhere, and she enjoyed doing it. She used everything available in the enclosure: iron rings, wire mesh, wood. It was really impressive!  

Naturalist Desmond Morris did a series of experiments with apes to test whether apes could make art—and even mounted an exhibition in New York—didn’t he? 

Morris is a specialist in zoology and primates, and a best-selling author. In the 1950s, he gave a chimp named Congo some paints and brushes. Congo was amazing as a painter-ape. He made hundreds of paintings and drawings in his own style, and didn’t stop until he thought the painting was finished. He even changed his style of painting. When Jackson Pollock saw Congo’s drawings and paintings, he thought he was a real artist! [Laughs]  

There is now a wonderful program called Apps for Apes (National Geographic has donated used iPads to it). Tell us about it. 

In a zoo, great apes don’t have a lot of activity. So some zookeepers use iPad tablets to allow them to draw or make music. They love using electronic devices and it’s wonderful because iPads are very easy for the apes to use. The problem in zoos is that they are always in the same enclosure, so having access to an iPad is an enrichment for them. But they can break the iPads. So you have to keep the iPads outside the enclosure’s mesh and the apes can put their hands through the mesh. It’s the same with painting. They don’t get the paper and paints in the enclosure. They do the paintings through the mesh.  

Despite all the love of her keepers and their attempts to keep her active, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Wattana. Is it right that we continue to confine animals in zoos? 

Jane Goodall once said that she wasn’t sure if she would prefer [great apes] to be in a nice, big enclosure in a zoo or in the wild with poachers and all the other challenges they face in the wild. If you put Wattana into the wild in Borneo, she wouldn’t be able to survive.  

A famous example was Lucy, a “talking” ape. Her owner, Dr. Maurice K. Temerlin, who was a psychologist, wanted to return her to where she belonged, so he put her in a reserve in Africa. But she never adapted to the reserve.  

Tell us what you learned from Wattana—and what your fondest memory is. 

What I learned from her is a way of life because orangutans are very bright and calm. They simply exist while we are always busy with work. The great apes, and especially Wattana, show me how to be quiet in life. A wonderful memory was during my last visit to Wattana, in a zoo in Apenheul, in Holland, where she now lives. I gave her some red ribbons. But at first, she didn’t do anything because she wanted a moment just to be together. I then went to see her sister, Dente, in the same zoo, and when I came back Wattana had made some knots in the wire mesh.  

I could not go into the enclosure. Only the zookeepers are allowed in. So we always had the glass between us. This is terrible, I think, because she’s captive—and I am free.  

This interview was edited for length and clarity.  

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at

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