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Keeper/orangutan interactions at Auckland Zoo: Communication, friendship, and ethics between species

By Alexandra Palmer

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This thesis is aimed at addressing debates within and beyond anthropology pertaining to humans' relationships with nonhuman great apes. Employing a hybrid methodology derived from ethnoprimatology, I use a combination of historical, ethnographic, and ethological data to examine interconnections between orangutans and their keepers within a modern urban zoological garden in Auckland, New Zealand. I use these data to address a series of nested questions relating to the purpose of zoos, the moral status of great apes, the legitimacy of anthropomorphism as a knowledge practice, and the environmental and cultural influences of the zoo upon both inter- and intraspecies social bonds. Ethnographic data speak to keepers' visions of the orangutans as minded coactors and moral persons. Keepers strove to provide their orangutan charges with as much choice, control, and stimulation as possible within their restricted environment. However, they struggled with certain aspects of their husbandry approach, such as whether the zoo's emphasis on producing naturalistic animal behaviour is a positive thing for the orangutans' welfare. Furthermore, they expressed uncertainties about whether their practice of "reading" the orangutans' moods represents a valid husbandry approach given their deliberate avoidance of anthropomorphism. However, keepers' perceptions of the orangutans' bonds with one another largely matched my ethological data. These data reveal that the orangutans display complex patterns of sociality with both conspecifics and keepers, supporting the notion that their social structure is highly flexible. Regarding the ethics of zoological gardens, some keepers struggled to reconcile their vision of orangutans as moral persons with the realities of captivity, which entails an inevitable restriction of animals' freedom. The portrayal of zoo animals as "martyrs" for their species was an emerging theme, which produced difficult moral dilemmas for some as it entails weighing the welfare of the species against that of individuals. This was further complicated by keepers' uncertainties about whether Auckland Zoo's orangutans are indeed worse off than those in the wild. Finally, this study represents an extension of the ethnoprimatological research site into an artificial world well beyond nonhuman primates' natural ecological ranges. A further contribution of this research is therefore to confirm the robust utility of the interdisciplinary ethnoprimatological approach, which takes into account the responses of both human and nonhuman interactants.


Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Date 2012
Pages 200
Publisher ResearchSpace@Auckland
Department Anthropology
Degree Master of Arts
Language English
University University of Auckland
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal roles
  2. Ethics
  3. Human-animal communication
  4. Interspecies interactions
  5. New Zealand
  6. open access
  7. orangutans
  8. Zoo and captive wild animals
  9. Zoos
  1. open access