Read an Excerpt
July 1965, Omaha, Nebraska
A young orangutan peers out of his cage at the Henry Doorly Zoo. No humans are in sight. The coast is clear.
He sticks his long fingers through the chain-link fence. He bends back one corner. He pulls. ZZIIIIP! The stiff metal fencing unravels like a hand-knit scarf.
Some time later, veterinarian Lee Simmons arrives at work. He rounds a bend in the path and yikes! Dr. Simmons stops in his tracks. It couldn’t be, but it is. A shaggy, red-haired ape sits up in a tree. How did he get loose?
The ape is about six years old, tailless, and weighs 100 pounds (45 kg). He has a mustache and beard like a famous movie character. For that reason he is called Fu Manchu. Fu’s arms are super strong and longer than most fourth graders are tall. In a wrestling match against a man, the orangutan would win.
The ape doesn’t move or make a sound. But Dr. Simmons sees a twinkle in his eyes. The vet can’t help but wonder if Fu knew what he was doing. It’s like he’s been sitting there just waiting for me.
Fu climbs down. The sun sparkles on his red hair as he scrambles back to his cage. Dr. Simmons follows, shaking his head. What a crazy ape! He locks Fu inside.
He calls someone to fix the fence and then goes about his normal business. And Fu goes about his—dreaming up more hijinks to come.
Fu was born in a rain forest on the Indonesian island of Sumatra (sounds like sue-mah-tra). Like most baby orangutans, Fu probably never knew his father. Orangutan mothers care for their helpless babies. Fu’s mother nursed him. She held him and snuggled him. Every night she built them a nest high in the treetops.
These sleeping nests were the size of bathtubs. Fu’s mother made them by twisting leafy branches together. Each fresh, new nest must have felt as comfy to Fu as clean bedsheets do to you.
Usually Fu and his mom stayed dry in their cozy bed in the sky. At other times thunder boomed. Rain fell in sheets. Then the apes huddled together and turned giant leaves into umbrellas.
During the day, Fu often rode on his mother’s back. He clutched her hair as they swung through the trees looking for durian (sounds like dur-ee-ann) fruits. Durian fruits stink like sweaty gym socks. But orangutans go ape for the smelly stuff.
The problem is durian fruits don’t all ripen at the same time, and the trees are scattered. To find them, orangutans must keep a map of the forest inside their heads. For Fu’s mother it must have been like memorizing a school bus route with hundreds of stops.
Finding water was easier. It collects in hollow tree trunks after a rain. Fu might have gotten a drink by scooping water out with a folded leaf. Or maybe he chewed leaves into a sort of sponge. Then he sopped up water and dripped it into his mouth. Either way, Fu used leaves as tools.
Long ago, Indonesian people dubbed these clever apes “orangutans.” In their language the word orang means “person” and utan means “forest.” Together you get “person of the forest.”
One day Fu and his mother heard strange sounds in the swamp. Hunters had entered the jungle. They carried axes and homemade nets on their backs. Rivers of sweat ran down the men’s bare chests. Armies of insects buzzed in their faces. But nothing stopped them. The men were animal collectors. They feed their families by catching and selling wild animals. A baby orangutan will get them a lot of money.
Did Fu’s mother know they wanted her baby? Probably not, but she sensed danger. She swung from limb to limb, snapping off branches. She threw the branches down on the hunters.
The animal collectors looked up. The mother ape looked like a tiny black doll hanging against the blue sky. Was she holding a baby?
The hunters had a traditional way of catching orangutans. They didn’t try to climb up after them. Not at first. That might have spooked the ape into escaping through the treetops. Instead, the animal collectors formed a circle. They pulled out their axes and hacked away at tree trunks.
The ground shook as a tall tree crashed to the forest floor. Then a second one, and a third. The trees were so close together that each one that fell knocked down another. CHOP! CHOP! The men worked their way to the last tree—the one holding the apes.