Remembering Janey

NOTE: Last June, we sadly shared the news that beloved orangutan Janey, had passed away. We were touched by and cherish the memories so many readers shared with us at that time. Here, one of Janey’s devoted keepers pays tribute and shares her own insight of that grand great ape.

Janey had the much-deserved reputation of being a sweet, gentle lady. There are many stories to back that up. She would take injured birds carefully in hand and bring them to keepers for care; she would intently check out things guest would show her from their side of the window, and she would gently play with infant orangutans. Over the last year, she would climb up into the trees just to play with little Aisha—Indah, Aisha’s mother, allowed her to interact with the newest member of the troop before anyone else. The list could go on and on. But Janey also had a cunning side.

I remember very well one time I heard her at the ‘trade door’, banging an object that sounded like metal—which is something she shouldn’t have access to. When I checked it out and asked her to trade whatever she had, she handed me a metal nut that had been used on a bolt to secure a piece of wood in the exhibit (We check these frequently, but orangs are astonishingly good at undoing things!). I figured that there was a washer to go with the nut and asked for that as well. She willingly traded the washer she had in her other hand.

When I asked if there was anything else, she looked around and indicated there was not. Just as I started to shut the trade door, Cinta (a juvenile male) grabbed another piece that Janey was hiding behind her and handed it to me. Janey tried to grab it away and shot Cinta the stink eye! She did not want to give this up and tried to hide it from me. Needless to say, both orangutans received a big reward for trading all the items!

While guests called her “The Artist” for the plethora of creative works she produced, keepers referred to her at “The Teacher.” She was the one that would patiently teach the new trainers the behaviors she knew. We train a number of behaviors to aid in medical issues—from presenting a body part to allowing blood to be drawn. Janey knew these behaviors forward and backwards and had the patience for us to ‘practice’ on her when we were training a new behavior and as a result, she knew the most behaviors of all the orangutans. In the last months of her life when she wasn’t feeling well, she willingly let us do multiple blood draws, ultrasounds and nebulizing treatments—all done to bring her comfort.

Janey was an amazing individual who leaves a lasting impact on everyone that knew her and who worked with her. She has shown us that things we traditionally think of as ‘human’ are not ours to own; that organutans, too, are sentient, caring beings.

Tanya Howard is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous blog, Siamangs Play Nice with Baby Orangutan Aisha.