- Associated Press - Saturday, May 24, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - A young male orangutan at the Smithsonian National Zoo escaped, triggering the security protocol. But one young zookeeper had another idea.

Robert Shumaker’s simple plan went against all zoo procedures, said Ben Beck, then associate director of the zoo. But Beck trusted Shumaker’s intuition, and took the chance.

Chatting calmly, Shumaker walked up to the orangutan, patted him softly, reassured him, then safely tranquilized him.

“There is no question in my mind that Rob, for lack of a better term - I know this is unscientific and imprecise -but he has a way with apes,” Beck, who has known Shumaker for more than 25 years, told The Indianapolis Star (https://indy.st/1neYP9T ).

Years later, Shumaker maintains that ability to know what the animals in his care need. And the Indianapolis Zoo will unveil a bricks-and-mortar testament to that vision. The new Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center owes much to Shumaker’s instincts about orangutans.

Everything about the exhibit - from its elevated Myrta Pulliam Hutan Trail to the studio where orangutans can “work” on science with researchers in view of the public - takes into account what is best for the eight animals housed there. At the same time, the $26 million facility affords human visitors ample opportunity to learn more about orangutans and their behaviors.

Under Shumaker’s direction, the zoo added features like an elaborate elevated outdoor transit line and the world’s first vending machine for orangutans, said Paul Grayson, deputy director and senior vice president of conservation and science at the zoo. The vertical trails feed their desire to climb and move around and vending machine engages them cognitively.

“Rob’s presence on the staff emboldened us to really push the envelope,” he said. “He gave us the reassurance that the thinking is right. … I can’t point to anything in that facility that Rob’s fingerprints aren’t all over.”

And it all began because of a friendship forged three decades ago at the National Zoo between Shumaker and a young male orangutan named Azy.

Both now in middle age - Shumaker is 50 and Azy is 36 (orangutans in captivity live to about 60) - the two met when Shumaker was in high school and volunteering at the Washington zoo where Azy lived. Shumaker continued working full time at the zoo as he earned undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees from George Mason University.

A keeper in the great ape house, Shumaker saw Azy and his sister Indah, who died a few years ago, just about every day. It’s hard, if not impossible, to pinpoint how a human and a member of another species grow close.

“I think it’s the same way I would answer what is it that makes a close friend or a really good buddy, Shumaker said. “It’s just how you click.”

Others note Shumaker has a rare connection to the animals.

As a keeper he stood out from the other staff for his deep commitment to animals’ well-being, Beck said. His concern extended beyond their basic needs to their cognitive ones. He did not hesitate to make suggestions about improving life for the orangutans.

“He had an intuitive feeling that these were extraordinary animals … and there was a potential for them to be bored in zoos and there was a responsibility to enrich them,” Beck said.

Shumaker played an integral part in the design of what was then a revolutionary concept - an overhead system for the orangutans to navigate, similar to Indianapolis‘ Hutan Trail.

Orangutans, Shumaker thought, could do more than climb. He helped create the National Zoo’s Think Tank exhibit that allowed visitors insight into animals’ cognitive capabilities. It also provided a golden opportunity for his research.

Others had tested the ability of chimps, another great ape, to engage in abstract thought. Researchers presented two dishes to a chimp, one with five treats and the other with two. The animal pointed to a dish. The researcher would then remove that dish. So if the animal pointed to the dish with more treats, he would be left with the dish with fewer treats.

The chimpanzees didn’t recognize the pattern and always went for the dish with more treats.

How would orangutans fare? Shumaker wondered. The answer astounded him.

At first, Azy always pointed to the dish to the right, no matter how many treats it held. But after a while, he began to almost always choose the dish with fewer treats, guaranteeing him more treats to enjoy. The others did much the same.

“The orangutans were doing something that the chimpanzees couldn’t and that was a bit stunning,” Shumaker said.

Since then, Shumaker has done many other experiments with his sidekick.

Over the years, Azy has learned how to identify symbols on a computer. Shumaker is teaching some of the other orangutans at the zoo how to use the computer, but none approaches Azy’s mastery.

“There’s no other orangutan anywhere that can do what Azy can do. … He’s irreplaceable,” Shumaker said. “I couldn’t just go to another zoo and meet another orangutan and do with them what I do with the ones here.”

Over the years, Azy and Shumaker have moved together. About a decade ago, the Great Ape Trust, a research center in Des Moines, Iowa, recruited Shumaker.

Zoos in the United States do not own their animals; the Association of Zoos & Aquariums manages where animals live. To continue his research, Shumaker negotiated to have Azy and Indah head west with him.

Meanwhile, the Indianapolis Zoo was planning a new exhibit on great apes. Management wasn’t sure whether to focus on gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans or bonobos or a mix. Zoo leaders went to Des Moines to check out the bonobo exhibit, Grayson said. They met Shumaker and Azy.

Then, the market crashed. The zoo scaled back its plans to just one species, orangutans. Shumaker and Beck, who had also moved to Iowa, served as natural consultants. On one trip, Shumaker mentioned that financial troubles would soon close the Great Ape Trust. He would be out of a job and the orangutans a home.

Zoo leaders were immediately intrigued. But Shumaker knew he had to be prepared for the possibility that he and the animals would be separated.

“I don’t own them. It’s not my choice,” Shumaker said. “In this case, it couldn’t have worked out better. I certainly didn’t want to go anywhere where these individuals weren’t.”

Azy, Rocky, Knobi and Katy followed Schumaker to Indiana from Iowa in 2010. Shumaker is now the zoo’s vice president of conservation and life sciences. The three months that Shumaker and Azy were separated before Azy’s arrival in Indianapolis were the longest they had been apart in 30 years.

Those who know Shumaker say he’s more than an animal person - he’s also a people person with a keen sense of humor. The Northside resident takes his two children to school every day. Working with great apes, he says, helps him be a better father to his and wife Anne’s 12-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter.

“Great apes are spectacular caregivers and extraordinarily patient with their kids,” said Shumaker. “What do you really need to be a parent? You have to be loving and patient and kind. … Those are the fundamentals and apes exemplify that.”

But apes and particularly orangutans may not be around much longer to share those lessons. The areas where they live in Indonesia and Borneo are being destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations. Their numbers in the wild decrease each year.

Exhibiting orangutans in a zoo thousands of miles away may not seem the most obvious way to protect their brethren in the wild, but animal conservationists say there is a natural connection.

Zoo exhibits like this one introduce the public to these animals. Shumaker’s scientific work adds another piece, says Norm Rosen, a great ape conservationist with the Los Angeles-based Orangutan Conservancy.

“The work that he does is invaluable because it’s critical for you when you work in the field to understand about the animals you’re trying to study or save,” he said.

And no one is as well-positioned to help us learn about orangutans in the captive setting as Shumaker, say those who know him and work with him.

“He’s cerebral, laid-back, and still has a fun side,” Grayson said. “I know a number of the staff laugh and say Rob comes across as the human version of an orangutan.”

___

Information from: The Indianapolis Star, https://www.indystar.com

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