The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Extending ethnoprimatology: an exploration of human/orangutan interactions in an urban zoological garden


Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland

Friday Afternoon, 301D Add to calendar

We present research on interactions between zoo-housed orangutans (Pongo spp.) and their caregivers at Auckland Zoo, New Zealand. Following the framework of ethnoprimatology, we use a combination of ethnographic, ethological and historical analyses to present a holistic picture of human-alloprimate interactions in this distinct setting. This approach facilitates our examination of the humans' understanding of orangutan behaviour and cognition, the social propensities of captive orangutans, and the ethics of keeping great apes in zoological gardens. Our ethological results confirm the existence of complex patterns of sociality among the orangutans, and suggest that individuals differ in their social propensities (e.g., time dyads spent in close proximity differed F(5,770)=67.65, p>0.005), and ethnographic data suggest that they differ in their inclination to interact with caregivers. Ethnographic data also suggest that although caregivers feel that they have close bonds with some of their orangutan charges, they expressed uncertainties about whether their practice of “reading” the orangutans' moods represents a valid husbandry approach. Furthermore, some caregivers struggled to reconcile their views of nonhuman great apes as moral persons with the realities of captivity. The portrayal of zoo animals as “martyrs” for their species was an emerging theme among the participants. Our study represents an extension of the ethnoprimatological research site into an artificial world well beyond natural ecological ranges. Despite this chasm, we develop tangible connections between our results and practical implications for orangutan welfare and conservation. As such, the robust utility of the ethnoprimatological approach is confirmed.

This research has been approved by the Auckland Zoo’s Animal Ethics Committee and the Human Participants Ethics Committee at the University of Auckland.

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