Visitors love watching the Sacramento Zoo’s orangutans as they explore and interact with items in their habitat. From enjoying snacks left out by their keepers to swinging from branch to branch and experimenting with tulle and rope, the troop’s inquisitive nature is readily apparent. But the more you watch the orangutans, you’ll notice that they tend to gravitate towards blankets, sheets, and pieces of fabric when given a choice of enrichment items.
Enrichment for zoo animals are items and activities that keep them stimulated, thinking, and utilizing their natural behaviors as they interact with their environment. Enrichments can include changes to their habitat, positive reinforcement training sessions, new scents and sounds, food in a puzzle game or hidden throughout their enclosure, or toys with which the animals can interact. One such enrichment item for our orangutans are pieces of cloth, blankets, and sheets.
Why do orangutans like blankets?
To an orangutan, blankets, sheets, and various textured fabrics are hard to pass up! Orangutans like to manipulate different items to see what they can do and to make different tools and to replicate natural behaviors. In the wild, orangutans have been observed making tools from branches and plant matter to do several tasks. In Borneo, orangutans have used handfuls of leaves to wipe their chins after eating. Sumatran orangutans have been observed covering their hands with leaves, creating a type of glove. This allows them to handle spiny fruit and branches. Orangutans have also been seen using leaves to swat insects, create a sunshade or protection from the rain, or as materials in building sleeping nests.
At the Sacramento Zoo, we provide enrichment opportunities daily for orangutans to practice their natural behaviors as they interact with their environment. One such enrichment item is various cloth and blanket material that the orangutans can manipulate and use to replicate large “leaves”.
For orangs in human care, blankets replicate the broad, tropical leaves used by wild orangutans. They have been observed employing blankets as a sunshade. Or a hammock to lounge in during the afternoon. When folded and bunched up, blankets make a wonderful sitting cushion. A large swath of fabric makes the perfect umbrella of sorts during a light rain. And each night, the orangutans make their own sleeping nest where blankets seem to make the perfect bedding. Just as is seen in wild orangutans, the orangutans at the Sacramento Zoo make a new sleeping nest every night using materials such as blankets, sheets, and even browse (plant material, mostly leafed branches, that are cut for animal consumption and enrichment).
In the wild, orangutans manipulate more than just leaves in their environment. Chewing up pieces of plants can create a sponge. Sticks are perfect for digging out seeds from spiny fruit or looking for honey in tree trunks. Orangutans in Borneo have even been observed using sticks to help them catch fish. They poke the sticks at the fish, scaring them into flopping out of ponds for an easy catch. Orangutans even use branches to alert others of danger. They will strip the leaves from a branch and hold it in front of their mouths when making a sound. The branch amplifies the frequency, making it much lower pitched and therefore allows the sound the travel farther. Here at the Sacramento Zoo, we love to see our orangutans utilizing the materials we give them to exhibit natural behaviors!
Zookeepers provide the orangutans a wide array of different enrichment items. The Sac Zoo’s orangutans interact with items such as browse, tulle, strategically placed food, and a variety of ropes, branches, and hammocks. Visitors will also find orangutans interacting with boxes, taking them apart and utilizing them much as they do blankets and fabric. The zookeepers also incorporate different activities to stimulate the troop, including painting! The Sacramento Zoo’s 2021 Virtual Auction recently featured a collaboration piece between the orangutans and artist Shannon O’Rourke. After Shannon created her beautiful piece of work, the orangutans added their own creative touches. Yet another example of positive reinforcement and enrichment here at the Sacramento Zoo.
Want to learn more about orangutans? Read about how Andrea helped acclimate Indah to the Sacramento Zoo. Or perhaps you’d like to read about all the details of China’s first orangutan husbandry workshop in 2018.