BOOKS: The Intimate Ape

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2010:

The Intimate Ape
by Shawn Thompson
Kensington Publishing (119 West 40th St., New York,
NY 10018), 2010. 320 pages, paperback. $14.95

“I know more about orangutans than any normal human being
should and apparently not enough about human nature,” says Shawn
Thompson in his new book, The Intimate Ape, his account of living
among these fascinating yet sometimes unpredictable creatures and the
people who care for them.
Thompson’s relationship with orangutans, a threatened
species, began in 2001 on a trip to the swampy jungles of Borneo.
At age 50, some people think of life after retirement. Not
Thompson, a writer and editor. At 50, he expanded his career by
studying orangutans.

The Intimate Ape invites the reader into the complex lives of
orangutans. Four feet tall, they are strong, yet shy and
withdrawn. They are intelligent, using rudimentary tools. But as
babies, they are as helpless as human infants. Orangutans live
primarily alone in the vast rain forests of Sumatra and Borneo–as
long as they are left alone.
Illegal logging strips away their habitat. They are captured
by humans, mostly out of ignorance. Sometimes they are stolen from
the jungles for transport to zoos.
Encroachment on orangutan habitat has reached such a critical
point that the World Conservation Union and the Convention on
International Trade in Endangered Species list orangutans as
endangered. Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered.
Many dedicated scientists, primatologists, conservationists,
and volunteers are working tirelessly to save this magnificent
animal. Thompson profiles Rosa Maria Garriga, a wildlife
veterinarian who is originally from the Catalan region of Spain. She
now works at an orangutan clinic in Pasir Panjang, operated by the
U.S.-based Orangutan Foundation International. She patches up
animals who have been slashed by machetes after running afoul of
loggers or farmers protecting illegal palm oil crops. Garriga copes
with nervous orangutans who try to bite her hands off. She could
work almost anywhere, yet she chooses to stay in the jungles with
the orangutans.
The best-known orangutan advocate may be Birute Galdikas,
sent by Louis Leakey to study orangutans in 1971, about a decade
after he sent Dian Fossey to study gorillas and Jane Goodall to study
chimpanzees. Galdikas has had many run-ins with loggers. Kidnapped
at one point, she was punched in the face and has a few chipped
teeth from it.
The Intimate Ape treats the reader to an unforgettable
journey in the steamy jungles of Southeast Asia. Some of the people
whose work on behalf of orangutans Thompson describes are heroic,
and a few are prickly, but most are just dedicated. Thompson also
introduces orangutans themselves, struggling to live in a world that
scarcely changed in millenia, but is now in constant transformation.
Some orangutans are brave, some are schemers, and some act out from
abuse. One hopes these are not profiles of a species we have come to
know just as they are driven to extinction. –Debra J.

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