Friday, February 22, 2008

Twin Orangutans Reach Milestone On Saturday

twin orangutansShe is a bit plumper, he a bit more jowly, and they are both slowing down a little. But as they turn 40, Woodland Park Zoo's twin orangutans still fascinate and amuse generations of visitors.

When twin orangutans Towan and Chinta were born at Woodland Park Zoo in 1968, Life magazine ran a picture of the babies and noted that the "twinkle-eyed creatures" were the first orangutan twins born in captivity.

Towan and his twin sister Chinta are celebrating their big birthday Saturday with a party, cupcakes, and a visit from old friends. Eric Sano, who was 6 when he won a contest to name the orangutans, will be among the guests. He is now a lieutenant with the Seattle Police Department.

At 40, Towan and Chinta are among the oldest orangutans in an American zoo. In captivity, orangutans can live well into their 50s. Orangutans are highly endangered. Trees in their native habitats in Borneo and Sumatra are harvested for lumber and palm oil.

Towan and Chinta have lived through some big changes in zoos, including the trend away from concrete enclosures to more naturalistic exhibits as zoos work to educate and encourage conservation. As youngsters, Towan and Chinta lived in the ape house, along with the gorillas and chimpanzees, with a screened area for outdoor play.

Chinta and Towan are both parents and live with three younger orangutans, all with their own personalities. Towan weighs about 300 pounds and is often seen with a square of burlap draped over his back. He is artistic and has a helpful personality. Two of Towan's original hand-painted artworks recently sold on eBay for $720 and $612.

Chinta weighs about 168 and can be recognized by her "cereal bowl" hairstyle. She loves to stare back at zoo visitors, and especially likes looking at their ears, said her keepers

The orangutans' names reflect their heritage, another change in the past 40 years or so. Earlier, zoo animals were often given cute names. The orangutans' mother and father were caught in the wild and named Molly and Elvis.

Sano laughs about being forever linked to two orangutans. He still remembers choosing the names as a youngster growing up in Bellevue. He and his brother both entered the contest. He said he went to the library with his mom and searched through a list of Indonesian words and translations.

Towan means "master" and Chinta means "sweetheart," he said.

Even more clearly, he remembers being invited into the nursery to feed the gorillas, while his classmates and others watched through a window.

"It was really exciting," Sano said this week. "It is kind of a weird thing. Here I am 46 years old and a father, and I am getting these calls on it. It was a dream come true, feeding those orangutan twins."

Pat Backlund was a young nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at the University of Washington when she was asked to go to the zoo and help feed the babies just days after they were born.

The babies were full-term, but small, about 3 pounds for the boy, and under 2 pounds for the girl. They wouldn't suckle, and zookeepers were worried. There were no veterinarians on staff, so they called the hospital for help.

"It was kind of exciting to be in on something like that. It was a first for the zoo," she said.

"I am glad to hear that they are still in good health and their future was bright."

Story here.

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