*Intern Renae shares her knowledge gained in the Wildlife Rescue Centre Jogja*
There tends to be the general idea that when an animal is rescued from awful circumstances created by the illegal trade, the animal is simply let back into the wild without any help or learning about their new jungle environment. But this is almost never the case and, actually, it is practically impossible. As all learning happens, it requires a process lead by another. It does not just happen. For many animals their natural abilities and instincts are trained out of them. They no longer know how to feed themselves or search for food. They have never had the opportunity to interact with others of the same species, or a different species. And worst of all, they are taught to interact with humans! But fear not, there is a place to help. But first, we need to understand why.
For this, I think back to my first day of high school. I had just spent 7 years in primary school learning how to act and socialise. I had found my place within the school and knew what I could do and what I couldn’t. It was so easy after all those years. I knew where to sit at lunch time and what teachers to avoid. I knew who was my friend and who would say mean things to me. But then suddenly, all that was taken from me and I was thrust into high school. Where was I supposed to sit? Where was the playground? What teachers were nice? What students were nice? Who could I talk to? Where was my classroom that changed every session!? Where did I find food? Fortunately, being part of a socialising species that has the ability to communicate through speech, I easily found all my answers to the questions I wanted to know. It was not something I could find all by myself. I needed the knowledge and guidance of an older person who knew better.
Well, this is the same for animals. Let’s take our Orangutan Boni as an example. Boni was kept by the head of a tribe as a symbol of power and authority. He mostly lived in a cage at the front of the house. He was hand fed and spent all of his time on the ground. He never learnt how to climb or swing. He never learnt how to search for food for himself. He never socialised with other orangutans. He didn’t even know what another Orangutan looked like. He was taught humans were approachable and were a source of food. He was taught how to sweep floors and clean up after people and himself. It became a habit. If there was mess, he had to clean it. Fortunately, Boni was rescued. Now, let’s assume Boni was taken straight to the forest, as is the general public’s view. To begin with, he is highly distressed with the dirty forest floor and feels compelled to compulsively clean it. Worn out with his efforts he continues on foot through the forest. But like high school, he didn’t know who was safe. Seeing another orangutan he approached. Being solitary animals, the other Orangutan took the approach as a sign of aggression and attacked Boni causing bodily harm. Next, Boni continued walking along the ground, as he had never been taught how to climb or be arboreal in anyway. The next animal Boni sees in the wild is a tiger who solely roams on the forest ground and, as is a tigers nature, the tiger attacks Boni causing more bodily harm. Continuing in pain he realises he is hungry. Unable to climb trees he struggles to find food. Just the rotten pieces that had fallen to the ground from the tree tops. Boni continues on, hungry and in pain. But he sees a human! The source of all comfort and food in the past. These humans capture Boni and he is taken straight back into the illegal trade or worse, shot on site as an intruder in the illegal palm oil plantations.
Fortunately, this was not Boni’s fate. Boni had a rescue centre to go to. Maybe he is not yet in the forest. But he is learning. Boni will never be abused by humans again. He only meets people who genuinely care about him and want the best for him. He learnt how to feed himself. He collects food from any hiding place. He even climbs now! He has a large enough enclosure to climb high and practice living arboreally. He has seen other orangutans and now knows he prefers to be by himself. He knows his keepers and knows he can approach them, but moves to the back of his enclosure if an unknown human approaches. He has had a teacher and learnt how to be an Orangutan again. Unfortunately, Boni still cleans his own enclosure. Despite all best efforts to encourage him to leave the mess for the keepers, he still follows his childhood instincts and sweeps the ground with his big hands. Because of this, Boni will never return to the wild. He will never learn that the forest floor does not need cleaning.
Many orangutans and other illegally traded animals do have the opportunity to return to their native land though. But first, they need to be taught. They need to learn how to feed themselves, socialise with others of the same species, and, most importantly, avoid humans! While we all aim to see our animal friends released into the wild, they do need a little help. Just like humans do when they start high school.