A common question we are asked by people who are interested in joining a volunteering project is:
“Will I get to have contact/play/be hands on with any of the animals on the project?”
The simple answer to this is “no”, which can sometimes be a disappointment to the enquirer. The media and charities, particularly surrounding orang-utan rehabilitation centres and conservation, are saturated with images of white people hugging the animals, especially baby orang-utan. This creates the misleading impression that to be of use in a primate rehabilitation centre, all you need do is love the monkeys and fuss over them as you would a human child.
Most primate care centres, especially those attempting rehabilitation and release in accordance with the IUCN guidelines, prohibit tourist and volunteer contact with any and all animals for two main reasons:
1. Risk of zoonosis
The risk of us passing diseases to our primate cousins is very real, and never more so than when we are physically close to the great apes, as they are genetically so similar to us. They can suffer from any disease, infection or illness that we can, and some pathogens are much more damaging to great apes than they are to us.
Also, bear in mind that in the rehabilitation centres, the young apes that are resident have been orphaned from a young age. Disease and infection obviously carry more risk to a younger primate, but when you add to this the suppressed and under-developed immune system of an orphan who has undergone huge stress and been deprived of its mother’s milk, the consequence of exposure to our germs can be catastrophic. Common ailments of ours such as the cold sore virus, coughs and simple colds have proved fatal to baby orang-utan.
In cases where primates have faced exposure to hordes of different volunteers of tourists and survived the disease risk, centres are then faced with the problem of how to rehabilitate these individuals. IUCN guidelines clearly state that animals that have been exposed to diseases that would not occur in their natural ecology cannot be released. The risk of them introducing foreign pathogens into an otherwise healthy wild population of animals (not necessarily just con specifics) is too high. Conservation efforts must prioritise the health and sustainability of the fragile wild populations, so animals that pose a risk to these are not considered viable for release.
Western tourists and volunteers pose the biggest disease risk to primates in rehabilitation centres for three reasons –
a. Westerners are typically looking for that one special moment, that photo opportunity, which leads them to get closer than recommended to vulnerable primates. The ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity for the tourist is often an hourly occurrence for the animal.
b. The nature of long haul flights means we are often harbouring germs and infections on arrival in a foreign country. Due to the ‘once in a lifetime’ attitude, tourists are often reluctant to self-quarantine and deny themselves the chance to see one of the great apes (or any other exotic primate) – they do not consider the best interests of the animal but act selfishly.
c. The face of the volunteer and tourist is not constant – over a year, upwards of 250 volunteers and almost countless tourists could pass through a rehabilitation centre. This is a huge number of different pathogens that the animals could be exposed to, and the risk of mortality to the animals is increased exponentially.
2. Habituation and behavioural implications
Imagine a situation whereby an orphaned human child is subjected to multiple adult care-givers over its formative years, most of which stay in its life for just two weeks. Do you think this child would grow up to be easy to manage, well-adjusted and able to socialise normally with others? Or would we unanimously agree that this would be a terrible way to raise a child and if subjected to this, we would expect them to have ‘issues’ to say the least.
Infant great apes require consistency too, and in an ideal world they should be raised by their own species. Sadly, this is not always possible and human substitutes have to suffice. However, the key is to keep the number of carers to a minimum. This decreases the risk of zoonosis already discussed, but also allows the apes to feel comfortable and safe around a select group of permanent staff who will be in the animals’ lives for the long term. What rehabilitation centres must avoid if they are to have any success is the habituation of great apes (and other primates) to the human species at large. You can imagine the possible problems in releasing an orang-utan, for example, who regards all people as friendly and approachable.
Although human surrogacy of orphan apes is often essential, it is fair to say that we do a poor job. To presume that a human can replace an orang-utan’s mother and teach it life skills with the same success is a bit delusional. Orang-utan are the most arboreal of all the great apes, and humans are by our nature entirely terrestrial. Therefore, perhaps the most fundamental feature of orang-utan behaviour is lost when they are cared for by people. Rather than keep the babies in the care of humans, as soon as they are able it makes far more sense to socialise them with con-specifics and expose them to the forest. Human carers provide an important safety net if required, but it is key that the orang-utan gain comfort in the jungle, not in the terrestrial world of the human ape.
Orang-utan babies are very ‘clingy’ and their grasping reflex is incredibly strong. This innate instinct to hold on and ‘hug’ is often used as a reason for giving the babies lots of attention, playing with them, hugging and kissing them, and carrying them around almost constantly as you might a human baby. Though it cannot be denied that infant primates require physical and mental stimulation and nourishment, humans have perhaps overstated the case for the need to constantly hug and hold onto orang-utan babies. Do not forget that in the wild, the orang-utan baby is rarely less than 20m up in the trees – though physical contact with its mother certainly promotes well-being and healthy development, for the majority of its time the constant ‘hug’ is a survival skill to prevent a lethal drop from the tree tops. When demoted to human care, the need to be held at all times is dramatically reduced.
Orang-utan in rehabilitation centres have been documented expressing many human behaviours including washing clothes, brushing their teeth, using boats, lighting fires, breaking and entering, fishing and bathing. Though in many cases these are fascinating displays of orang-utan intelligence and their ability to learn intricate behaviours through simple observation, it highlights the detrimental impact of having a large, ever-changing human presence around apes that should have a chance to return to the wild. Often the apes become far too immersed and comfortable in our human world, and take inappropriate pleasure in our pursuits, which leads to a reluctance (or in some cases a flat-out refusal) to return to their natural habitat.
When volunteers are on site, we are often asked what constitutes contact – is it possible to feed the orang-utan, talk to them, engage in enriching games like throw and catch or tug of war (for animals currently in captivity)? Is just brushing their outstretched hand really that detrimental to their health and/or rehabilitation potential?
To answer the latter question, the answer is maybe. Imagine for a moment you are volunteering at a rehabilitation centre. If you are close enough to touch an orang-utan’s hand, are you wearing a facemask? Before you reached out, did you consider where your hand has been? Have you coughed into it that day, wiped your nose, been to the toilet or had contact with another animal (maybe a domestic cat)? Even if you had just thoroughly washed and disinfected your hands and you were wearing a facemask, remember the transient presence you are in that animal’s life. For you it is a quick, gratuitous touch that you see as having little or no impact – for the orang-utan you have just reinforced that if it holds its hand out to a human, it is going to get a response. If it holds its hand out to a tourist, perhaps it contracts a cold virus, is given inappropriate food or drink items, or gets handed a cigarette.
You should always ask yourself – is touching the orang-utan something you feel will benefit its life, or is it something that you wish to do simply for your own experience and pleasure?
The above goes some way to answer the question of what constitutes contact. In an ideal world, orang-utan that entered rehabilitation centres should be kept as far away from humans as possible, with the exception of a team of dedicated carers, to avoid all the potentially negative impacts we can have on their health and behaviour. However, for many reasons this is rarely, if ever, realisable, so we endeavour to keep our volunteers’ presence in their lives as unobtrusive and positive as possible. For example:
- High husbandry standards, provided by our volunteers, increase welfare and even survivorship of the animals. Therefore, though this work involves close proximity to the animals, overwhelmingly the impact of good husbandry is positive
- Provision of enrichment often sees volunteers in close proximity to the animals, and provides a level of ‘contact’, as a device is created and then placed within reach of the animal – either in their enclosure or in an area where they can collect it. Volunteers then observe the animals’ behaviour. However, good enrichment promotes mental stimulation, an occupation in the place of boredom, and encourages natural behaviour, which is of vital importance in terms of rehabilitation and release potential. Once again, though this involves close proximity and a level of ‘contact’, the positive impact massively outweighs the potential detrimental effect
Ideally local talent would be employed to cover all facets of animal care, from husbandry to enrichment to post-release monitoring. However, in reality this is not always feasible, and until the time that it is, volunteers can perform roles vital to the animals’ welfare and survival.
Reality check – tourists vs. volunteers
Almost all of the orang-utan rehabilitation centres are open for tourism and see thousands of tourists passing through each year. It is these tourists that pose the greatest threat in terms of both zoonosis and habituation. In many centres, it is unrealistic to ask volunteers to ensure complete sterility at all times and to have no interaction what so ever with the orang-utan, when a group of tourists may shout and scream at the orang-utan, throw food in to them and cough in front of their enclosures. We are working towards a future of responsible tourism for all great apes, and see that this begins with responsible volunteering.
You may be volunteering at a centre where tourist code of conduct is deplorable and in direct contrast to the rules and regulations you have been asked to adhere to. Practises can change though; one of the centres we work at used to encourage tourist and volunteer ‘play time’ with the baby orang-utan, resulting in more than 50% mortality of the 0-5 year olds. It was not this shocking statistic that encouraged the centre to change its policy, but the presence of our volunteers who did not demand this level of interaction, understood the reasons why they could not hug the babies, were still happy to pay money to work there and enjoyed the experience immensely.
This is one of the aims of our projects: to assist the rehabilitation centres in improving their standards, both in animal and tourist/volunteer management. Indeed, these two aspects are not mutually exclusive.
In developing our volunteering programs, we are aiming to create a system to help orang-utan and other endangered animals, not exploit them for the gratuity of paying clients. Though bad practises exist, historically and presently, in terms of volunteer and tourist ‘play time’ with baby apes, this does not mean it is acceptable for our volunteers to perpetuate a model that has been scientifically proven to significantly increase the mortality of these animals.
Many travel agents attempt to sell their products by stating that your holiday or volunteering experience helps save the endangered animal you are travelling to see – Be assured that if these tours or projects allow volunteer and/or tourist interaction with the animal in question, rehabilitation, release and even welfare of those animals is not the projects’ main objective.
Tour operators and volunteering companies should ask themselves:
Are we taking people’s money in order to help the animals at our project site, or are we using the animals in order to make money?
As a prospective volunteer, you may be looking at a plethora of different volunteering options with great apes, and may perhaps be wondering if you should choose a project that would allow you to have contact, rather than one that does not. Perhaps you feel like you would get more out of the experience if you could hug the babies. We would urge you to instead consider if you are happy to give your money and time to an endeavour that may result in the injury or death of members of the species you are interested in helping.
(NOTE: Much of the discussed can be reconsidered when dealing with animals that are fully captive, either in zoo environments or the population present in all rescue centres that do not have a chance of release, which can be the case for many reasons. In these instances, the issues with disease are not quite the same [though mortality of infants is still a real risk], nor are those of habituation. Indeed, contact with humans, ideally long-term care givers, can provide enrichment and massively increase the welfare of these individuals.)
So what will my role be around the orang-utan?
A lot of the work you will be doing on the project will see you in close proximity to the orang-utan, and other animals at the centre. This includes husbandry each morning, maintenance of enclosures and enrichment activities. Often you will find yourselves closer than perhaps you would expect to the animals, sometimes within a meter or two. You will always be supervised when in this close proximity, and expected to behave in a way that is mindful of the impact you may have on the animal.
We want our volunteer programs to positively facilitate the rehabilitation potential of the animals we are working with, and assume that you, as a volunteer, do too – you are clearly motivated to help these animals if you have chosen to spend your money, and holiday time, on a volunteering program.
We always assign work with the animals and the centres in mind, and you work on tasks that will benefit either party. We do not necessarily create or allocate work based on what we think the volunteer would most enjoy! Some centres are so desperate for their tourists and/or volunteers to have a positive experience and leave glowing feedback that they will tailor the experience to simply satisfy the human – the animals’ needs are lost along the way. We never lose sight of what is in the animals’ best interest, both in our short and long term plans for our projects.