Rebecca Reeder-Hunt ’73 spent many years in the classroom, but these days she does all her teaching outdoors — to students with bright orange fur.
by Nancy Allison
Updated: Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Rebecca Reeder-Hunt ’73 volunteers for several weeks each year at Orangutan Foundation International in Indonesia.
It’s a jungle out there, just two degrees north of the equator in Indonesian Borneo, where Rebecca Reeder-Hunt ’73 and her husband Bill Hunt volunteer for several weeks each year at Orangutan Foundation International (OFI). It takes about 30 hours to fly to from their home in Las Vegas to Indonesia, the necklace of islands between Australia and Asia. Landing in Jakarta, they stay the night and fly early the next morning to Borneo.
When they arrive at OFI’s Orangutan Care Center & Quarantine in Central Kalimantan, they’re met with squeaks of recognition from many of the orangutans, says Reeder-Hunt. Others are more exuberant, “and we can almost be knocked over as they jump down from trees, or three or four at a time to try to jump into our arms.” Each morning the couple starts out in clean, white shirts. “By the end of the day, we’re filthy and exhausted,” Reeder-Hunt says with a smile.
Orangutan Foundation International has reintroduced more than 400 rescued orangutans into Borneo’s rain forest since 1971. Orangutan infants make popular pets, despite the fact that selling and owning them is illegal. It takes years to prepare ex-captives to live on their own, Reeder-Hunt explains. At first, the traumatized animals are simply held and comforted. As they gain confidence, they attend “jungle school,” where OFI caretakers and volunteers like the Reeder-Hunts encourage the orphans, “to climb, explore, and eat the native vegetation as their mothers would teach them to do in the wild.”
Orangutan mothers have their work cut out for them. Males don’t stick around after mating, and once she gives birth, the mother carries her single offspring night and day for the next five years. This close contact is crucial, so that the mother can pass on where to find the hundreds of different kinds of fruit they need and how to locate other foods (flowers, insects, bark, young leaves, birds’ eggs, spider webs) when fruit is scarce.
The growing orangutans eventually make a mental map of the forest, a feat of memory and mimicry that ensures their survival. They also learn how to make day nests for resting and night nests for sleeping, high above the ground. It’s dangerous down there, where wild pigs, tigers, leopards and crocodiles hang out looking for prey. Orangutans protect themselves by spending about 95 percent of their lives in the trees.
Extinction in Our Lifetime?
Sadly, says Reeder-Hunt, the trees they need for safety are getting harder to come by in Borneo and Sumatra, the only two places where the orangutan still exists in the wild. In the past 30 years, some 80 percent of Indonesia’s primary forest has been cut down to provide the west with plywood, paper pulp, and more recently, palm oil. If habitat destruction continues, these gentle tree-dwelling mammals will become extinct.
Not if Reeder-Hunt can help it. After her first trip to Borneo in 2008, she created a website [rebeccareeder.com] to sell orangutan-inspired art online, sending 100 percent of her profits to OFI. She also uses the site to educate readers about orangutans and their habitat and to encourage OFI donations.
“Our big push right now is for the Rawa Kuno Legacy Forest,” Reeder-Hunt says. “It’s a rare opportunity to save a huge area of rain forest. Orangutan Foundation International has the first shot at buying this land from a local farmer, but if we can’t raise the money, it will be sold to the palm oil developers.”
And then there are the care packages. When she sees baby diapers or children’s chewable vitamin C on sale, she orders a case and has it sent to OFI headquarters in Los Angeles. “When [OFI director] Dr. Galdikas visits the U.S. and then makes the return trip to Borneo, she takes it along with her.”
Orangutan extinction wasn’t an issue when Biruté Mary Galdikas went to live in Central Borneo 40 years ago. From its coastal mangrove swamps to its thickly forested interior, the world’s third-largest island was nearly as unexplored as the orangutans themselves. In 1969, Galdikas approached legendary Kenyan anthropologist Louis Leakey, who had funded Jane Goodall to study chimpanzees and Dian Fossey to study gorillas in Africa.
Certain that she was meant to study orangutans, Galdikas asked Leakey for his help, and he found sponsors for her field study in due course. In 1971, she arrived with her then-husband and photographer Rod Brindamour in Borneo’s Tanjung Puting Reserve. The couple cleared out an old hut to live in. They had no lights, phone, fridge, stove or toilet. What they did have were leeches, crocodiles, pythons and disease-carrying mosquitoes. Galdikas couldn’t have been happier.
“My first years in the field were years of discovery,” Galdikas wrote in her autobiography in 1995, “when merely finding a wild orangutan was exciting, when following an orangutan for a week or more was a triumph, when almost everything I learned about orangutans was new.” She named the research area Camp Leakey, and it’s there that she has maintained the longest-running individual study of great apes in the world. Soon, she was rescuing them as well.
Reeder-Hunt recalls the famous National Geographic cover story Galdikas wrote at Camp Leakey in 1975, and the photo Brindamour took of Galdikas holding one orangutan on her hip and another by the hand. Teaching high school English at the time, Reeder-Hunt envied Galdikas’ life in one of the last wild places on earth, learning about one of our nearest relatives.
Little did she know that 35 years later she would take a klotok (Indonesian river boat) up the Sekonyer River and become an OFI volunteer and friends with Galdikas — even sit on the porch of the cottage at Camp Leakey as the immense orangutan, King Kusasi, lumbered up from the forest to join them. Or that she and her husband would sponsor the renowned primatologist’s visit to the U.S. to speak at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where her husband earned a casino/hotel management degree. Or that Galdikas would one day send her a note saying, “Thank you so much for all the love you share with the orangutans. My gratitude will never cease for all the good you’ve done.”
Reeder-Hunt only knows that after years of teaching and a career in the airlines, “working with the orangutans is truly a highlight” of her life. Now, she’s learned for herself how gentle they are, and how strong.
“Even the tiniest toddlers can trip you when they grab your ankles,” she says. “There are times you truly cannot pry their finger off your camera or shoes — after all, their hands were made to cling to mother as she swings through the tree tops. Sometimes it is heart stopping.”
One orphan who truly stole the couple’s hearts turns out to be the star of the new IMAX movie, Born to Be Wild, filmed on location at the Care Center. If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember Omry. He’s the little guy who wreaks havoc in the kitchen, clanging pots and diving into the flour, swinging from the clothesline and playing with the clean laundry.
When Rebecca and Bill met Omry about three years ago, he was a very different fellow.
Shy and uncertain, “Omry came up to us and kept pointing to his back.” He wasn’t just asking for a rub, says Reeder-Hunt. “We finally saw that there was a thorn deeply embedded in an area where his shoulder and back muscles would constantly be in use in the trees.” They called for the Care Center’s vet, who used scalpel and tweezers to pry out the thorn. “Omry sat quietly, but we could tell that it hurt. Afterwards he gave us a big kiss and ran off to play.”
Watching the film for the first time, both were thrilled “to see Omry swaying in the tops of the jungle school trees and grabbing mangoes out of the hands of other male orangutans.” Due to an injury, Omry had previously been the one from whom treats were stolen, Reeder-Hunt explains. “We literally had tears in our eyes watching him. Over the past three years, we have been delighted to see Omry become more dominant.”
If Reeder-Hunt sounds like an anxious parent, she also knows that seeing the orphans re-enter the forest and leave interaction with humans behind is the goal of all that occurs at the Care Center. But Omry is a very special case. She’s decided not to be there on the day he’s released, afraid, “I’d start crying and make him think he has to come comfort me. And the orangutans do that.”
Reeder-Hunt recalls when a young female became upset after accidentally scratching her. “She got very worried when she saw blood on my arm. Other orangutans heard her squeaks of distress and gathered around.” Another time, when Reeder-Hunt brought a snack to a large sub-adult, ex-captive who wasn’t adjusting well to being alone, he put his arms around her and whimpered.
“Orangutans are very expressive, just like humans. They smile, frown, pout, and become very jealous of each other if they think they are losing a potential mommy to another orphan.”
Vanishing Forests & Unsupportable Oil
It’s not surprising that we share many behaviors with orangutans, since we also share about 97 percent of the same DNA. In Malay, “orang-utan” means “person of the forest.” The native Dayaks believed that orangutans could speak, but kept their ability a secret so that they’d never be enslaved. They are, says Galdikas, “among the most intelligent land animals on this planet.” Orangutans will use tools: a stick to pry seeds from recalcitrant fruit or a huge leaf as a natural umbrella in a downpour.
In 1995, Galdikas wrote her autobiography, Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo, in the hope that it would “help people understand orangutans and their tropical rainforest world, a world which is in grave danger of vanishing forever.” Nearly a decade on, the danger is graver than ever.
Large-scale timber and oil palm plantations, illegal logging, and forest fires that grow more intense as the climate changes are wreaking havoc in Borneo, where less than 20 percent of the forests of Central Kalimantan remain free from threat. With its more than 600 species of birds, 5,000 types of plants, and amazing mammals, such as clouded leopards and pygmy elephants, still roaming, “Camp Leakey still looks like Eden,” Galdikas said in a 2010 interview in Smithsonian magazine. But only five miles north, the primeval garden has been razed and burned, and the barren monotony of palm oil plantations has taken its place.
Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. It’s found in everything from peanut butter to detergent to face cream, and is widely used in baked goods. Go into the grocery store in Poughkeepsie, Queensland, Bangkok or Berlin, and half of the manufactured food products there will contain palm oil.
Brush your teeth, you’ve used it. Wash your hair, launder your clothes, moisturize your skin, you’ve used it. Eat a candy bar, you’ve eaten it. Galdikas, who teaches half the year in Canada, told a group recently of her quest to find margarine that didn’t contain palm oil. She eventually found it in the third store she tried. “I don’t eat anything that has palm oil in it,” she explained. “Palm oil producers have orangutan blood on their hands.”
When forests are cut into, cut down and set on fire, all the systems that the animals that live there depended on for survival disappear. When the forests become fragmented, the animals become increasingly exposed. Thanks to oil palm concessions, orangutans now wander onto plantations that used to be their home. Starving, they eat the young shoots they find there.
Plantation owners have begun to pay hunters to shoot them as pests. Villagers who used to find honey, small game and herbs in the wild are also suffering the consequences of forest destruction. Many places they used to forage in are now sterile mono-crop cultures, driving them to kill and eat wandering orangutans and sell the babies on the black market, despite the animal’s protection under Indonesian law.
You Are What You Eat
Borneo’s whistling, buzzing Eden, where for millennia wild orangutans have lived in peace, is burning. And we are contributors to the blaze, says Reeder-Hunt, “when we buy cookies, crackers, cosmetics, breakfast bars, microwave popcorn, calcium chews, and candy bars that contain palm oil.”
Reeder-Hunt’s advice is pretty simple. “Read product labels and don’t buy items that contain palm oil.” On her website, she encourages visitors to donate to OFI’s Rawa Kuno Forest Legacy, to adopt an orphan, to send what they can to help organizations like OFI save the orangutan before it’s too late.
“It’s easy for me,” she says. “I know that orangutans have fingerprints. That in the wild, they smell like fresh cedar. And that when you tickle them, they laugh.”
On the Web:
Reeder-Hunt’s website: rebeccareeder.com
Orangutan Foundation International: www.orangutan.org
Indonesia's vanishing forests