Wattana: An Orangutan in Paris

Wattana: An Orangutan in Paris
Chris Herzfeld; translated by Oliver Y. Martin and Robert D. Martin

University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2016
192 pp., illus. 22 b/w. Trade, $28
ISBN: 978-0226168593.

Reviewed by: 
Gregory Tague
November 2021

In Wattana, philosopher of science Chris Herzfeld chronicles the life of a captive orangutan who’d otherwise be an anonymous object in a zoo and forgotten upon her death. Wild primates are studied; primates in labs are used for human experimentation; confined primates are sources of entertainment in a world they’re forced to share with people. The book’s engrossing subject demonstrates an acute sensitivity to the wide ranging orangutan sensibility and offers a phenomenology of zooed apes in how they’re expected to fit into a human life-world. Herzfeld rightly draws attention to the intelligent and creative personalities of great apes nevertheless trapped in enclosures. Wattana is a richly thoughtful work that will appeal to readers of philosophy, science, animal studies, and anthropology.

The first chapter surveys naturalists from the eighteenth century who wanted to keep alive animals surviving from King Louis XVI’s menagerie after the revolution. A zoo was established: The Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes. Over time, this Paris zoo enlarged through gifts, confiscations, and travel specimens. Zoology was now center stage, and research began in earnest. At the time, little was known about animal behavior and diet in the wild. Many creatures, up to the twentieth century, died from neglect, poor conditions, or depression from solitary confinement. The menagerie thrived as a place of public pleasure and scientific interest until a decline after World War I. Even into the 1970s, highly social and intelligent great apes were placed alone in cages as “exhibits” in a “collection.” Hygiene was important, and it was believed that separation kept apes safe. Eventually, cognitive enrichment and food related manual entertainment became the norm in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Indeed, Herzfeld is a founder of the Great Apes Enrichment Project.

After some genealogy, Herzfeld gets to Wattana and her half-brother who was separated from her and sent to another zoo, causing grief. She was only about six years old and had been very close to her brother. Young chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans spend years with their mothers, learning how to become a great ape. Like other zooed animals, Wattana was deprived of that experience. Her mom rejected her, but this transpired because she never learned how to become a mother. Wattana will eventually have children, rejecting them. In the end, once she is placed in another zoo where she is able to observe mothers, she bears a son and raises him as a mother ape should. Oddly or not, the dedicated human keepers of the infant apes are the parents, rearing babies by hand. This occurs because apes are breeders in zoos, where offspring are separated and shared to promote genetic diversity. In some cases, as happens to Wattana in time, she meets up with one of her siblings when relocated to a zoo in the Netherlands.

Compared with her mates, Wattana proves to be an able learner. Through the nineteenth century, infant orangutans were studied for their dexterous abilities and intelligence. Over the course of the book, Herzfeld brings into the discussion well-known apes like the orangutan Chantek, the chimpanzee Washoe, and the gorilla Koko, all of whom learned sign language to communicate with their caretakers. In this way, Herzfeld’s account is a good overview of the field, where many other researchers and philosophers of science enter the narrative. For example, there are compelling questions about borders between humans and apes and how any being naturally wants to possess its habitat. How does an ape construct a home in a zoo? Similar questions about the relative hospitality of zoos are raised in Barbara J. King’s book, Animals’ Best Friends (2021).

Apes in cages have been known to stake claim to their territory. In one instance, a male gorilla forcibly removed a caretaker and slammed shut the door like an angry teenager. Herzfeld relates a similar incident with a female orangutan. Some zooed great apes are socially accommodating around humans, like Wattana, whereas others would hide in an effort to delimit their space. Furthermore, apes have been known to mark their areas with scratch marks from hard objects or just spittle, each ape leaving an individual signature. Orangutans at the Paris zoo socialized with humans. The apes managed to accumulate bolts in their enclosure that they then traded periodically for treats. These were efforts of goodwill, Herzfeld says. Likewise, apes in captivity learn novel behaviors from each other. One female chimp in Madrid who had no teeth contrived to externally pulp fruit against a hard surface before eating. This behavior was then copied by others, cultural transmission. Another form of socialization by captive apes appears to be their greater incidence of bipedalism. As Herzfeld suggests, much comes down to combining cultural heritage and adaptability by these “conciliatory apes” in a human realm.

Zooed apes are “denatured” in their artificial and sometimes elaborately “realistic” faux habitats. If anything, what Herzfeld sees is the ape ability to adapt to these almost farcical surroundings attesting to their strength of will to reinvent a self. They are not fixed automatons, as Descartes presumed. While they have been appropriated, they too appropriate their confining environs with their curiosity and inventiveness, a coping mechanism for so many deficiencies in their confinement. To overcome the human arrogance (her word) of imprisoning great apes to retain their presumed wild purity, many zoo inhabitants now use computing devices and other devices to paint or draw, compose music, play games, or see captive mates on a live stream. Sanctuaries, which house former lab apes and do not put them on exhibit for sale, seem more prone to enrichment and care. At the same time, creatures in zoos are well fed and freed from predators, if that’s any consolation. Since many captive apes have been born indoors, they are not even aware of their natural habitat. This is a moral issue since captive-born apes have lost the feel of the forest and a large social group.

This book is worth the price for chapters four and five on knot-tying and aesthetics. These are the parts Herzfeld builds up to and where she shines. Herzfeld was involved in knot-tying experiments with Wattana. Some knots were complex, with multiple loops, deliberate action showing how alleged human-only tool use is not accurate. Many items were used for knotting or weaving and demonstrated a high degree of rhythmic concentration and perseverance. Some items became useful, as toys, bodily ornaments, bracelets, or objects to attract the attention of or engage socially with human caretakers. Often, the knots had no practical purpose, created by Wattana as ars gratia artis. While cognitive abilities are innate, how did this art culture start? Caretaker shoelaces would be untied by an ape; then, the keeper would tie the shoelaces under the intense scrutiny of watchful eyes. So, this involves, later, memory, planning, mental sight, and touch to accomplish the task. Following Marc Richir, Herzfeld sees the knot-tying as functionslust or a being engaged in what she knows how to do well. This is evident in all living creatures, not just humans. For instance, take nest building in the wild, which can be deliberately artistic according to leaf color selection and bedding arrangement. Pulling in other philosophers, Herzfeld sees this nest building by apes as an “ethology of comfort” in an ape/forest coevolution. In fact, all apes use natural fibers, wood, and stones for an array of functions in their natural habitats.

Herzfeld says the knot-tying of apes and by Wattana in particular evinces an aesthetic sense. This leads her into a discussion of other practices, like the blowing of bubbles by apes, the bubble rings of dolphins, and the conspicuously ostentatious breeding huts of male bowerbirds. On occasion, Wattana adorned her enclosure with strips of paper or colored cloth as if setting up an installation. As Herzfeld understands it, these artistic expressions resemble statements of existence in the world. Art-prone apes deliberately and patiently have been well documented, beginning with Desmond Morris in the 1950s to this day in sanctuaries. Painting elephants are now routinely used by zoos to attract customers, and some ape art has been sold, raising capitalistic, cultural, and intellectual property concerns. In her book, The Subject of Aesthetics (2015), Tone Roald places creator and viewer, iterations of the self, at the center, not the art object. This could be said of apes in what Herzfeld enunciates.

Considering how apes flexibly and willingly enculture themselves to the human realm in captivity, why do we insist on keeping them at a species level? Are we afraid of our own animal nature? Do we want to maintain the false, hierarchical chain of being fabricated hundreds of years ago to impose our imaginary exceptionalism? Those are the fundamental questions Herzfeld correctly raises and competently addresses. In a related work, The Great Apes: A Short History (2017), she fittingly asks human apes, “What does it mean to be an ape?”