November 17, 2010

Dancing with an Orangutan

Branches snapped and cracked above my head as a screaming whoop-whoop sliced the heavy air. I jumped back reflexively and looked up, shielding my eyes from the sun that glanced off the broad leaves of the upuna trees and strangler figs. A black-red shadow screeched in high register: wu-ow … wu-ow … as it swung toward me and landed with a rustle in a small tree to my right. Then the specter–a very real orangutan–grinned at me and started chattering.

“That’s one of our teen-agers,” said the guide who was shepherding our visit to this orangutan preserve on the island of Borneo. It was fall, 1991, my first overseas trip with Jack and my maiden trek into the truly wild.

I stood my ground and cooed back as the orang chittered away. Then slowly, a leathery black hand reached out, grazed my arm, and squeezed. I smiled.

“I think he likes you,” Jack said, snapping a photo.

The orang looked at me quizzically as it hung draped from the tree by one long, lanky, auburn-fuzzed arm while squeezing me with the other, gently at first.

“Get another shot,” I called to Jack, petting the orang’s wiry fur and posing for the picture as the animal drew closer. The camera clicked.

Suddenly the orang leaned down from the tree and clutched me again, harder this time. I stood taller and, without thinking, pulled away. That’s when the creature’s grip hardened and suddenly it was on me–a wild animal the size of a sixth-grade boy but with the iron clutch of a championship wrestler.

“Jack?” I called as I felt the situation slipping from my control …







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