A Flash of Orange

Nov 14, 2014
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Today on SNAP, we spare no expense. Come with us now to the island of Borneo, where Agustin Fuentes - he studies the elusive green leaf monkey. Now, Agustin lived in the jungle, stayed at an orangutan sanctuary where orangutans that had been trafficked as pets and circus animals were taken and reintroduced into the wild.

AGUSTIN FUENTES: Orangutans show up at these rehabilitation centers when police confiscate them. Sometimes you get ones that have been highly trained. So they come wearing clothes and used to living an almost-human life. People teach them to pour drinks, wait tables, ride bicycles, put make-up on them, have them smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. And people think that's funny. And that's the really scary thing is people don't realize how dangerous some of these apes can be. I have to explain to people all the time that all the other primates are not teddy bears. They're wild animals.

When we arrived there, we were warned to stay away from the big male who was living outside of camp, but would come in when they fed every day. And that male would come in out of the jungle for the feeding. And the feeding would be this giant wooden cart filled with fruits. The male would just walk right up to the cart. The young man holding the cart would move away. And that big orangutan male would shove an entire pineapple in his mouth, chew it and then take another one.

It was a little bit dicey. My fear of the orangutans had two reasons behind it. The first one is they're amazingly strong. Even a small orangutan is stronger than I am. The second thing is these ex-captives, these ones who had ventured into their human world and came back to a sort of mixture of human and their own world, they're less predictable. So I gave them a wide berth.

I was chasing the extremely elusive maroon leaf monkey. It's a reddish-furred leaf monkey that runs around on the top of the trees. After a few weeks at the camp, I was a bit frustrated because I had been going out every day and hadn't been able to find the monkeys. I found plenty of other animals, but no monkeys. So today I was determined. I was going to go out and find those monkeys. I spent pretty much all day out in the jungle. It's late afternoon. I figure, time to get out to camp. I don't want to get stuck at night. I have a headlamp in case I need it, but being out by yourself at night in the jungle is not a good idea.

I turn around and start going back, and I immediately realize I'm not on a trail anymore. And I'm noticing a change in the jungle. The sounds start to change. The light starts to change. The jungle starts to wake up in some ways at night. I pulled out my compass and took a sort of general reading. I'm lost. I figured that pretty quickly. I'm a little nervous and just sort of wandering through in the direction I'm hoping is the right direction.

I come across an opening. I thought, oh, well, maybe this is a path. And in that opening, in the sort of fading rays of light, I see this unbelievable shimmering on the ground. And I looked down, and it's blue. It's sort of this metallic-blue shimmering. I didn't know what it was, so I moved out into it. And then out of nowhere, it rises off the ground and flows up right - all around me. And it turns out it was hundreds of metallic-blue butterflies, and it was one of the most beautiful experiences in my entire life.

Then I started to hear noises around me, and it got a little less great. I became completely disoriented. I felt defenseless. It's a different kind of world. It's getting darker, and I'm starting to get extremely concerned. I start to realize that I might have to spend the night out in the forest. I had a little bit of water. I, you know - I have a knife on me. Moving along in this area, I hear a rustle. But it's not on the ground, it's not in front of me and it's not behind me. It could be anything. I hear it again, and I can tell it's up in the trees. So I have a headlamp on. I look up, and I hear the rustle. I'm not sure what it is. And then I catch a glimpse of red, red fur. It's an orangutan, and I was in trouble.

She looks down at me. I look up at her, and she just sort of walks down the tree onto the ground, approaches me and sticks her hand out. I didn't hesitate. For some reason, it was so inviting, and the moment of communication between us was so powerful that I didn't think about it. I just put my hand in hers. She wrapped her fingers around mine. And they were muscular and you could feel the bones and the tensile strength in them. But the skin was really soft which surprised me for a critter who's climbing up and down trees all day. And she was able to hold my hand very almost tenderly. It's very, very soft. Even though I knew she could probably break the bones in my hand if she wanted just by curling her fingers, she grasps it tenderly. And she immediately turns and starts walking.

And I was absolutely shocked at first, and then almost immediately I realized what was going on. She was heading into camp, and she was taking me with her. The moment was so magical, but it was so different from anything. I don't think I had any context in which to place it. And I've spent the last 15 years telling people not to touch the monkey. Here it is, my story about me, you know, holding hands with an orangutan.

So after I got back to camp and had this incredible experience, I was there for another 10 days, maybe two weeks. And I saw the orangutan two, maybe three, times on the edge of the camp, maybe eating. I always sort of tried to position myself so we could make eye contact, and I'd be somewhere near her. To be honest, I sort of wanted her to recognize me, to acknowledge this incredible interaction we'd had, but it was to no avail. She didn't really even take much notice of me after that.

You feel, at first, a little slighted. We didn't have the connection that I thought we did. This is something that I'm going to think about for the rest of my life. Did she want to help me? I think she definitely sensed that I was scared and in need. But she her life. I had mine. She had been there in the moment. I was there in the moment, and, you know, both of us went our separate ways.

WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Professor Fuentes for sharing that story with SNAP. And remember, don't touch the monkey. That piece was produced by Anna Sussman with sound design by Pat Mesiti-Miller.

Now, when we return, SNAP JUDGMENT pals around with the plan. And we hang out with rock stars, backstage. Come with us, when SNAP JUDGMENT the "Unrequited" episode continues. Stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.