Firm swings into action to outwit apes

April 12, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

The Jarvis Steel & Lumber Co. is going ape -- in hopes of outsmarting apes.

The Baltimore company is building a transit system for orangutans at the National Zoo, with hopes all around that the apes take to it rather than take it apart.

But orangutans are very adept at taking things apart -- such as the small components of the Orangutan Transit System sent to Washington last year for testing. Pieces of steel bolted together tightly with a torque wrench were intentionally left for one of the apes to examine.

"When the feeder went to the enclosure, the ape handed him the nuts and bolts," said John Jones, project coordinator for Jarvis Steel, which is building the OTS at its plant on Patapsco Avenue.

The OTS will be a line of eight 44-foot galvanized steel towers supporting an elevated double-cable trail along which the apes will swing arm over arm. The 9,000-pound towers will be painted brown or green to blend into the park environment.

"If you want a nut to stay on a bolt, it has to be welded," said Dr. Benjamin Beck, assistant director for animal programs at the zoo -- formally known as the National Zoological Park.

"There is no other way to make it tight enough. [An orangutan] will ultimately take it apart."

Apes 'intelligent'

Dr. Beck calls orangutans "extraordinarily curious, intelligent, enormously strong and perseverant."

So, plans for the OTS were redrawn and all joints will be welded together.

The OTS, said zoo spokesmen, is the only such system in the world and is meant to simulate "life in the trees" of Borneo and Sumatra, Dr. Beck said.

"It's a jungle gym for apes," Mr. Jones said.

But the system is meant to be much more than a playground. The OTS eventually will connect the Great Ape House, home of the orangutans, with the Think Tank, where the animals will use tools, send and receive messages and use social strategies.

Dr. Beck said that 17-year-old Bonnie, the brightest of the zoo's orangutans, may be the first to climb and explore the OTS. Adventurous Bonnie escaped a few years ago and joined a picnic.

"It was 20 minutes before the visitors let us know Bonnie and her baby were dining with them," Dr. Beck said. Zoo folklore says she was polite, helping herself to a napkin, showing an appreciation for fried chicken and letting the humans pet her baby.

The 3 million humans who visit the zoo annually will be able to walk under the OTS and watch the action overhead without fear of apes crashing their parties.

"Orangutans understand absolutely that if they drop, it will be a bad thing," Mr. Shumaker said. "They grip vise-like with hands and feet and make 100 decisions daily of how they will get from point A to B."

Dr. Beck said that orangutans, which can have 11-foot arm spans, are "too smart and too sure-handed to intentionally drop 45 feet."

Mr. Shumaker said he expects the orangutans to take naturally to their new "trees."

Off-the-ground animals

"Their bodies are designed to be off the ground," he said. "They don't move around as well on the ground."

The Think Tank will open in about a year -- part of the entire orangutan project expected to cost $3 million.

"The orangutans will use computers [at the Think Tank] to learn a symbolic language," Dr. Beck said. "They will develop the social skills of cooperation, competition and communications which we in Washington call politics."

Jarvis began building the OTS in August and has already delivered the first tower, which will stand in the ape house yard.

"We wanted them to have the towers now and give them a long time to get used to them, before Think Tank opens," Mr. Shumaker said. "The younger ones will probably try out the system quicker."

400 feet of open space

Six more towers will stretch across the Great Meadow, over 400 feet of open space, to the last tower in the Think Tank yard. All structures will be grounded in concrete.

Each tower will be topped with a 12-by-12-foot platform where primate travelers can sit, sleep, play or fish for a treat on the ground with a 45-foot drop line.

"The apes might think of other games, like spitting or tossing stuff at onlookers," Dr. Beck said.

Mesh to give the orangutans hand holds will cover all four sides of the two end towers. "They will use the towers like a ladder," Mr. Jones said.

The 3-inch galvanized cable will be coated with plastic to soften the feel of the wire, Mr. Jones said.

The interior towers will be electrified to deter climbing down by primates or up by people.

"The orangutans will quickly develop a group tradition and won't touch the wires," Mr. Shumaker said.

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