Zoos Should Be for Politicans

1999 > Russia

Never go to a Russian Zoo!

Chicago Tribune 9 March 1999


By Colin McMahon, Tribune Foreign Correspondent.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Do not be too harsh with Monika. The female orangutan
at the Leningrad Zoopark is a bit overweight. And yes, it seems she would
rather watch television than care for her newborn son.But Monika is a sensitive
soul, even though her difficult childhood contines to affect her family life.
She is an accomplished artist and a good mate for Rabu, the zoo’s other adult
orangutan. Monika wants to be a good mother, her keepers say, she just does
not know how. So the St. Petersburg zoo, which has retained the city’s former
name, is trying to teach her, pinning their hopes in part on television.

Monika, the Leningrad Zoopark has its share of problems and its admirable
goals. Much of the place, the grounds, the cages, the buildings, is
dismal. Low wages and overwork plague the staff, and security is poor on
the 18-acre campus. The zoo’s budget is barely adequate to keep it open.
So the zoo, like the rest of the country, is looking for help. It has started
a program in which donors can “adopt” the zoo’s animals. A capital improvement
drive is under way as well. At the same time, the park’s veterinarians and
zoologists are enlisting advice from their colleagues in Europe and the Americas.
With Monika, for example, zookeepers turned to the Brookfield Zoo in suburban

The Moscow Zoo, downtown

Monika’s child, Ramon, was born in November. Monika and Rabu took to Ramon,
showing him gentle affection. But Monika failed to nurse him, and after a
couple of days zoo personnel had to remove Ramon to feed him. Ramon is now
a healthy, 7-pound baby orangutan with arms like tentacles, a grip like a
vise and the typical old-man primate visage. He is healthy and, by all
appearances, happy, but he cannot be returned to his parents anytime soon.
Without his mother’s milk, Ramon has failed to build up the immunities he
needs to live with his own.

Instead, he lives in an anteroom of a zoo office, cared for by Elena Goroshenkova
and other veterinarians. He sleeps in a wooden crib on sheets decorated with
cars, wears Pampers and charms anyone who pops by, even a visitor who interrupts
his midday nap. “Monika’s problems are fairly common with young mother
orangutans, especially those who have been raised artificially with humans,”
Goroshenkova said.

Monika’s early history is also cloudy, Goroshenkova said, implying that the
orangutan’s documents were doctored before she arrived at the zoo in 1987.
What seems clear is that Monika was not born in the jungles of Borneo and
not raised in an orangutan family. She has, though, come a long way at the
zoo, even learning to draw and paint well enough that she had an exhibit
where the zoo sold her work. (Asked the top price a Monika painting fetched,
chief curator Natalia Popova demurred. “It’s a commercial secret,” she said.)

Alas, Monika’s skills do not carry over into family life. This is where the
Brookfield Zoo people, and television, come in. Goroshenkova and her colleagues
hope to teach Monika how to be a mother so that her next child will not have
to be taken away. They also want Ramon to one day go back to her.

Brookfield keepers had success training their orangutan Sophia to perform
maternal duties. And when Sophia’s second daughter was born, mother and child
got along well and stayed together. “I firmly believe in the results of positive
reinforcement training programs as I have witnessed fantastic results from
a variety of efforts,” said Carol Sodaro, lead keeper of the orangutans at
Brookfield Zoo. “A training program of this type is worth every bit of the
time invested if it pays off in the mother raising her own infant.”

Brookfield has made a video of its keepers working with Sophia and of the
birth of Sophia’s second daughter. That video has been sent to zoos around
the world to help instruct keepers and, in some cases, to show to the orangutans
themselves. This appears to be what the Leningrad Zoopark has in mind, but
it is putting its program together on the fly.

After a local newspaper reported that zoo officials were interested in some
kind of program for Monika, Samsung donated a television. The keepershung
it outside the cage, and now Monika and Rabu watch Latin American soap operas,
Russian game shows, whatever. Rabu likes nature shows, though the ones with
tigers unnerve him.

It’s odd. The keeper switches on the tube, and the two orangutans climb up
from the floor of their small cage and perch themselves on a pole. Monika
leans to one side or guides Rabu out of the way to see the screen. He, meanwhile,
takes the prime viewing seat up front.

On this afternoon, Rabu also keeps an eye on a couple of male visitors outside
his cage, even coming over a couple of times to try to spit on his guests.
The message is clear: Monika’s mine. “We’re interested in molding behavior,”
Goroshenkova said of the television viewing. “If they are interested, they
watch. If not, they don’t. It does not interfere.”

The orangutans do not have control of the remote. (“They’d take it apart
in a second,” Popova said.) Nor do they get to watch much more than an hour
a day. “They are just like children,” Popova said. “They could get too accustomed
to it and spend too much time watching.”

For now, Monika and Rabu will have to be content with what comes on over
Russian broadcast stations. A video player remains just one more item on
the zoo’s long wish list.