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  • Writer's pictureDr Mark J Tenenbaum

Hands Off!

People that love animals want to have the opportunity to shower them in affection, to embrace them so that no harm may reach them, and to play with them as if they are our own kin.

Bunyau - an orphan orangutan being raised by The Great Orangutan Project - Photograph by Dominic Kelundek

Perhaps this comes from pet ownership, where dogs that have co-adapted to living with humans over thousands of years respond in kind by nuzzling us or playing with us, or perhaps rather from our innate sense of wanting to protect the innocent and endangered.

It is therefore often difficult for us to grasp that this humane concept of physical protectionism and the desire to directly interact can be harmful and detrimental to the very animals we are interested in protecting.


Upon returning from my short volunteering stint in the jungles of Borneo, the question I was most commonly asked in regards to my experience was that if we as volunteers were allowed to hold the juvenile orangutans or directly engage with play.

The overwhelming reaction when I informed them that project employed a “No Direct Contact” policy was that of disappointment and confusion. I confess, when researching in to my volunteering experience, the idea that one travels halfway around the world to assist in rehabilitation and provide husbandry of these animals, yet was not able to directly interact with them was disappointing.

But with further research and reading, I began to understand why responsible animal rehabilitation centres employ such policies.

A mother and her baby orangutan living in Semenggoh Wildlife Centre - Photograph by Dominic Kelundek

So why exactly is it so detrimental to allow direct contact between primates undergoing rehab and short-term volunteers? You can read The Great Orangutan Project's policy statement here, and I will discuss some of the key issues raised below.

Due to the extensive genetic similarity between the great apes and humans, orangutans are particularly susceptible to contracting diseases that commonly affect humans. These can be pathogens such as the common cold, or herpes viruses from humans, and can cause significant rates of mortality in young, immune-stressed animals. Given that most western tourists hop straight off a long-haul flight and head to the wildlife centres they are volunteering at, they are typically a melting pot of foreign pathogens.

Giving consideration to the animals in this situation, most are infants and have naive immune systems, and in the wild would still be dependent on milk from their mothers to protect them from any new threats to the immune system. The stress levels of the young animal are astronomical after being pulled from their mothers dead body and transported and kept in sub-par conditions that poachers subject them to.

Even once they are rescued, the unfamiliarity of the rescue centre, the lack of a mother and the lack of freedom to explore adds to their stress. In terms of susceptibility to disease, they are prime candidates.

Changau (Matang Wildlife Centre) combining playtime with lunchtime - photograph by Jack Wheelahan

Combining these weak and at-risk animals with a constant influx of westerners with their plethora of ailments is a terrible idea. Any animals that are to be released back in to the wild must carry no pathogens the animals wouldn't otherwise encounter in the wild under IUCN guidelines.

If the whole purpose of these sanctuaries is to rehabilitate and release animals that are brought in, the risk of compromising this release with foreign diseases is too great.

Beyond the health risks, we must also consider the psychological development of young animals. The Great Orangutan Project make a fitting analogy of having westerner volunteers responsible for the nursing and nurturing of infant orangutans:

"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."

Although a human surrogate mother is often required for particularly young animals, it is inappropriate to have a regular turn-over of those responsible for the animals welfare. It reinforces a curiosity for humans and discourages the development of normal wild orangutan behaviours.

It predisposes these animals, if they ever are considered fit for released, to wander back in to human settlements and be recaptured or killed. There should be one primary surrogate mother for the young animal, and otherwise minimal contact with other humans. ​​

A mother and her baby orangutan living in Semenggoh Wildlife Centre - Photograph by Dominic Kelundek

As I previously discussed, I understand the innate desire to connect physically with these intriguing animals. Watching their interactions with each other, their facial expressions and witnessing their unique identities, I was enthralled with these animals. Volunteering in a rehabilitation centre provides its own way to connect with these animals - by bettering their lives.

Two of the older orangutans at Matang Wildlife Centre examining a fresh piece of fruit - photograph by Jack Wheelahan

Whether it was the thankless task of the daily enclosure scrubs that decrease their risk of disease, watching them pull apart the enrichment parcel that we spent an hour putting together, or swinging from a tyre hammock we helped to create, I felt a heart-warming sense of connection to the animals through the benefit to the welfare and livelihood we provided for these animals.

Changau, a young orangutan with a bubbly personality and a bright future - photograph by Jack Wheelahan

With the appropriate education on why wildlife being rehabilitated shouldn't be directly handled by volunteers and tourists, this sense of connection is far greater than any hug from a baby orangutan.

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