Over the course of the last couple of years, through a research project I worked on, and then later through visits in my own free time, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know the orangutans who are kept at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. Recently, on March 24th, one of those orangutans, a 48 year old male named Towan, died during a medical examination. Towan and I weren’t the closest (and he was much more interested in women than in me, anyway) but I admired and respected him as a wise old man, a sensitive soul, and an artist. Coupled with the sadness that usually comes with a death, over the world having lost someone special, I am filled with grief over the injustice of an entire life lived in coercive captivity. If you believe that there is some inherent characteristic of the human spirit that is crushed and invalidated by a lack of freedom, I can assure you that the same was true for Towan.
Towan was born in the Woodland Park Zoo in 1968, and he remained there until he died. If you’ve visited the orangutans at the zoo in Seattle, you’ve likely seen him, and you’d probably remember him for his big, soulful, searching eyes, which were often aimed at the humans who trailed by his enclosure. I had the pleasure of seeing Towan spend many days doing two of the things he did best: creating art, and connecting with humans in a way that changed them forever. If he could combine these two, and paint or draw side-by-side with a visitor, even better. Even though we weren’t close personally, he almost always approached me and settled in to watch if I opened my bag and pulled out a sketchpad. On days when he’d been given paint or chalk, he could spend hours decorating any surface around him: rocks, the concrete floor, even the viewing glass, all while periodically tasting his art supplies. When I watched him paint, I was struck by his concentration and obvious sense of purpose, each squiggle or smear of color appearing wholly intentional, his eyes focused and lips stained a shade of bright blue or purple.
Along with his passion for art, Towan had a strong interest in humans, and spent many of his days lounging on a platform in his enclosure which positioned him right on the other side of the glass and face-level with most visitors. I can’t count the number of times I saw Towan’s intense, longing eye contact break apart the worldview of a human who ended up locked in it. I saw people spend an hour or more transfixed by him, staring into his eyes with less than a foot and a layer of glass separating them. I saw people cry, or become speechless; I saw people urge their friends or family to go on and enjoy the rest of zoo without them, because they needed to be with him longer. He had a way of communicating his selfhood wordlessly that left people irrevocably altered. Nearly every time I talk about the orangutans with people from Seattle, someone comes forward with a story of an encounter with Towan that they still think of often. He touched many people, had many friends, and was very well loved.
Even though he made the best of his situation, it wasn’t all beautiful moments. Towan undoubtedly knew that he was captive, and that he could not leave even if he wanted to. In the 90s he led the other orangutans in an escape attempt, and they actually did get out of their enclosure before all of them had fire hoses turned on them and were eventually shot with sedative darts. A few years later he escaped again, alone this time, before eventually meeting the same fate. I think it’s important to understand these escapes as purposeful acts of resistance, and I also think that his time spent looking out into the crowds and having those moments of connection with visitors could be understood similarly. He was actively resisting the image of him projected by the zoo – as an object, a possession, a source of entertainment – and instead letting us all know that he was a being with a whole world behind his eyes, that he shared that same spark that makes each of us a unique and sentient person, that he was someone with thoughts, desires, opinions and emotions. His eyes said “I’m here, looking out at you, and you’re not going to ignore it.”
This was often a hard message for people to swallow in the setting of captivity, as it should be. Because of having known Towan, and having seen his spirit, intelligence, and individuality, I am convinced that no zoo would have been an appropriate place for him, or for any orangutan, or many animals at all, for that matter. So many of the things that make a full orangutan life were stolen from him, including a relationship with his mother, the ability to choose his mates and his company, or to freely travel up to a few miles a day in the forest, choose from hundreds of different food sources, make decisions, solve problems, and ultimately live a self-determined life. So not only is a special person gone, but his chance to be given any small approximation of those things is also gone. Both things are tragedies. As I mourn his passing, I also mourn the life he was forced to live.
I’ll let him finish this off, with a video of him painting, which he did often and seemed to really love. Goodbye, buddy. I hope you’re painting in the trees.