Indy’s International Orangutan Center protects, learns from endangered species

CRAIG BANISTER/INDY ZOO PHOTO

CRAIG BANISTER/INDY ZOO PHOTO

Two friends move 1,000 miles together, then another 500 after meeting three decades ago.

That is the mark of a special relationship, made extraordinary because of who is involved: a longtime expert on primate behavior and a middle-aged orangutan.

The ongoing partnership between Rob Shumaker and 36-year-old Azy soon helps introduce a remarkable place that protects an endangered species while teaching visitors why to care.

The International Orangutan Center opens May 24 at Indianapolis Zoo. The $30 million project begins as a home for eight of these great apes, whose DNA is 97 percent the same as humans.

“We will grow from there,” says Rob, vice president of conservation and life sciences at the zoo, but “the goal is not to simply say we have the most orangutans. It is to provide a spectacular place for those we have.”

In the Indy octet are orangs that used to be privately owned, for work in movies, advertisements and other forms of entertainment.

Wild orangutans are endangered – some say extinct within 25 years – because of poaching and habitat obliteration in their native Asia. Around 200 orangutans live in U.S. zoos, but nowhere else will the public observe these creatures during mental skill studies.

Orangutans will express thoughts and make decisions while interacting with researchers and computer games, as up to 70 visitors at a time watch from an observation window.

The studies will seem like play and happen up close or dozens of feet off the ground.

“It’s not a show but ongoing, science-driven projects,” Rob says. “We want to change people’s hearts and minds about orangutan conservation.”

Many people, he believes, wrongly assume the reddish-orange animals are monkeys and don’t realize how similar they are to humans.

Rob and post-doctoral researcher Christopher Flynn Martin are studying what and how orangs comprehend. Their data will assist the California Institute of Technology, Japan’s Kyoto University, Indiana University-Bloomington, other academic institutions and peer-reviewed publications.

Work commences in a glass-walled building that looks like a modern church with steeple. Near the 150-foot-tall spiked building are towers for orangutan climbing and privacy. They get there by maneuvering cables, bridges and platforms that are 45 to 80 feet high.

That means the animals will swing and move outdoors, above their guests, who may gain close encounters when riding the new and 1,200-foot-long Skyline, aerial cable cars.

“The only things separating the orangutans from visitors is distance,” Rob explains. The National Zoo in Washington, D.C., has a similar “O Line” transport system for its six orangutans.

Why introduce this type of design? “Asking an orangutan to live on the ground is like asking a St. Bernard to live in a tree,” Rob says. Swinging in fresh air from one area to another “is exactly what they do in the wild all the time.”

He describes global orangutan conservation as “an absolute failure. We can’t say the numbers are stable – and we can’t promote orangutan conservation without promoting habitat protection.”

That will happen through the zoo’s reforestation exhibits and fundraising, especially for a national park in Borneo, where most of the remaining wild orangutans still live.

Rob and Azy met at the National Zoo, then moved for six years to Iowa’s Great Ape Trust, where Rob was director of orangutan research. He categorizes his relationship with Azy as “a rare privilege for me” and “I am better for it in every way.”

Azy knows about 60 words, relishes new mental challenges and is known as a gentle peacemaker who intervenes when orangutans scuffle.

“I think the biggest thing he has learned is the ability to express his thoughts using symbols,” Rob says. “Everything else has flowed from that.”

Rob says they are research partners, but not in a teacher-student sense.

“Perhaps the biggest impact on me has been learning that orangutans are all individuals, as different from one another as any human that I know,” he says. “They are formed and shaped by the accumulation of their individual experiences over time.”

Just like people.

It was important to include Azy in the International Orangutan Center because “I didn’t want to be working somewhere where he wasn’t.”

The Indianapolis Zoo, 1200 W. Washington St., is open daily; hours depend upon time of year. Standard admission is $12.45 (less for children, older adults). indianapoliszoo.com, 317-630-2001

Learn more about the eight orangutans at the International Orangutan Center at azyandfriends.com. Donations are tax deductible.

Five miles northeast of the zoo, another exhibit of major proportions is almost ready for public viewing.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, 3000 N. Meridian St., on May 10 opens an exhibit of Terra Cotta Warriors from the tomb of China’s first emperor. Eight warrior statues and 100 other artifacts are in this 15,000-square-foot show, which makes no other U.S. stop this year.

The exhibit is significant because this is the first time a family-specific institution has been approved by the Chinese government as a tour stop, says Monica Humphrey, exhibit project manager. “We had many challenges to protect this priceless piece of history but also make it accessible” to children and adults.

Children’s museum staff developed many interactive features – “a chance to step into the environment” – to complement the traveling artifacts.

A big-screen video explains the artifacts’ significance. Actor interpretations bring history to life. Visitors can step into the role of warrior or archeologist by putting on costumes.

This is the biggest temporary exhibit ever produced for the facility, which is the world’s largest children’s museum. It is in addition to the museum’s new “Take Me There: China” exhibition, which tells about life in China through the eyes of a real 11-year-old boy who lives there.

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $19.50 (less for children, older adults) but does not include Terra Cotta Warriors; that ticket is an extra $10 ($5 for children, $7.50 for older adults). childrensmuseum.org, 317-334-4000