Siswe, as it turns out is spelled Siswi. And another fact I got wrong in the first Camp Leakey blog, is that Siswi is not a wild-born ex-captive, she’s in fact totally wild, born in the wild, but her mother was an ex-captive that used to come to Camp Leakey and bring her along, so Siswi growing up with a familiarity of humans, and at some point decided she’d rather spend lots of time in Camp, than in the forest. I’m telling you this because it’s relevant to this next story. You see, as you wander around Camp Leakey, with animals everywhere you look, it’s easy to become complacent, to drop your guard, and to forget these are wild animals. I mean, Siswi was playing in a rain poncho for 15 minutes for crying out loud! What I didn’t tell you about that was that when Mike and I filmed Siswi performing this way, Jeremy was quite stressed about the 3D team getting the shots they needed, and he just didn’t want to stop and watch her and it was clear that he wasn’t interested. And she very much noticed this. Honestly, you can watch that animal for just a short time to know that she is perceptive and she really does get annoyed if you are not making her the center of your attention. And I’ve been told by various people who work with orangutans- they hold grudges.
Much later in the day we’d been filming out by where the boat docks, and Jeremy headed back to Camp to let Craig know we were going to have lunch on the boat, and he walked back along the boardwalks on his own instead of taking one of the guides. He saw Siswi on the boardwalk and went to walk past her. (This in itself shows the level of complacency we’d gotten to, because you’d NEVER try that with any of the other great apes, but these guys are just so docile, you sort of forget the basics of primate manners: never supplant a dominant animal (i.e. you don’t move an animal out of it’s place by advancing on it, you wait for it to move off). So Siswi grabbed Jeremy’s hand. He thought that was sweet and he held her hand for a second, but if I know Jeremy it was with an air of (“oh Siswi this is lovely, but I really need to walk a long distance just to tell Craig that it’s lunch time and we have so much to do today!”) And after just a second of holding hands she bit his calf- HARD - and didn’t let go. At first he thought she’d stop, but she didn’t let go so he started screaming for help. After an entire minute some rangers came running, and just their advancing presence shooed her off. Jeremy was fine, thankfully the teeth hadn’t pierced the fabric of his pants but he was bruised and the skin abraded from the force.
He arrived back at the boat and calmly told us what happened and was quite stoic about the whole thing, you know, no big deal, as if you get bitten by wild orangutans all the time. It was a pretty nasty looking wound and I was shocked and asked him to replay every detail, how he approached her, how he moved, trying to assess WHY she did it. And I found myself trying to think through her thoughts sometimes from a basic primate behavior perspective (supplanting, feeling threatened on the narrow dock, etc.) but the fact that she gently held his hand first was really throwing me off. And I couldn’t help but feel it was something else. Why him? Why now? We’d all been around her a lot, why on the boardwalk? But when I told Dr. Birute about it, I said that I had this crazy anthropomorphic theory that because she seemed to really thrive on attention, and he’d been clearly dismissive of her antics earlier in the day, that she somehow didn’t like him for it and was lashing out. She asked a few questions and had me describe how he wasn’t interested in us filming her (which he was expressing verbally and of course non-verbally with body language) and then she asked a bit more detail about when she bit him and when Dr. Birute heard she was alone on the boardwalk with none of the (dominant) Indonesian rangers around, she said she thought I was absolutely right, that she was annoyed with him from earlier and was just expressing that. Although she added that the bite probably wasn’t quite meant to be as damaging as it turned out, Dr. Birute felt that it was a ‘gnaw’ rather than a bite, something orangutans do to one another that doesn’t hurt and pointed out that she didn’t even break the skin- whereas what’s she’s capable of would have ripped his calf muscle off. She reiterated that these are wild animals, and bites happen and that it’s something to be aware of…
Siswi relaxes on the boardwalk
When we need to pass, our guides shoo off Siswi and she gets down and wades in the swamp
This is just a harmless yawn, but Jeremy experienced a less adorable moment with those teeth
Good thing Siswi only gnawed on Jeremy, a real bite could have been worse