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Party planning for orangutans

Hey there fellow animal enthusiasts! My name is Caitlin McGarrity. I’m a new member of the Primate Team, working specifically with the team who cares for our orangutans here at Zoo Atlanta. Since I started here as a keeper in September, I’ve learned a lot about the 10 orangutans we house at the Zoo and have the amazing opportunity to develop relationships with every one of them. One of my favorite things to do when the time rolls around is to plan their birthday celebrations!

Planning birthday surprises for the orangutans is something we can do to give them special enrichment items they don’t necessarily receive on a regular basis. Most of the enrichment we give the orangutans is meant to encourage natural behaviors, such as foraging, tool use, or arboreal movement. However, sometimes we celebrate special occasions by giving them something novel so that it is exciting for them. Of course, the orangutans do not know that it is their birthday when we are celebrating it, but they seem to enjoy getting special treats on occasion. One example of the special type of enrichment we give them on their birthdays are wrapped presents that contain hay and some of their favorite treats such as popcorn, peanuts, oats, or sunflower seeds. And what is a birthday without a birthday cake? We make our orangutans birthday “cakes,” either out of ice treats (diluted juice and fruit), or a unique but healthy cake made from oats, banana and applesauce microwaved together. This cake is something extra special we give the orangutans in addition to the healthy diet we give them daily, which is formulated to meet their caloric requirements and is approved by our Veterinary Team. They go crazy for it!

We also decorate the habitats with a painted banner (using non-toxic paint of course) or a sign written in chalk on the climbing structures that wishes the orangutan a happy birthday. This way, guests can know that it is an orangutan’s birthday and can celebrate with us, as well as understand why they are seeing unnatural looking things on habitat.  And as an added benefit, the orangutans enjoy using the paper from the banner to nest build or play with!  Often, we will post photos or videos of the birthday setup and of the animals enjoying their birthday surprises on social media, so our social media team will come out to help us capture all the fun.

The orangutans here at the Zoo are ambassadors for their wild counterparts, who face endangerment due to habitat destruction from the unsustainable harvesting of palm oil.  So, another important purpose of the birthday parties we throw for our orangutans is to help connect Zoo guests to them and hopefully spark an interest in their learning the orangutans’ histories and inspire them to want to find out more about how they can help orangutans in the wild. 

In the spirit of talking about animal birthdays, one of our female orangutans named Biji recently just turned 51 years old this past October. Biji is the oldest orangutan in our population, as well as the third oldest Sumatran orangutan in North America. We made her 51st birthday extra special with a birthday banner, wrapped presents, extra blankets for her to be cozy with in her hammock, a heart-shaped ice treat cake, and Dixie cups full of Jell-O. When you visit the Zoo, you can see Biji lounging in her hammock in Habitat 3, which is in the background of Habitat 2. Be sure to follow Zoo Atlanta on social media so that you can look out for our birthday shoutout posts for the orangutans, as well as the many other animals at the Zoo!

Caitlin M.
Keeper I, Primates

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl