Notes from Wattana: An Orangutan in Paris by Chris Hertfield

p. 141 “Captive great apes … are present at the crossroads of several entangled histories, with their personal stories mingling with that of their ape or human partners, inscribing them with a social history as well as a specific cultural history. Nevertheless, we still continue to confine them to a single history: their natural histort, reducing them to representatives of their species and products of their phylogenetic history. Yet the behaviors of great apes, eminently social and flexible, cannot be generalised at a species level. … It is difficult for us to admitthat creatures other than human beings might have a biography. Yet great apes are born, grow up,meet others, form friendships, travel from place to place, developing different character traits, preferences, varied interests, and particular skills.

p. 97 “Knot after knot, assembly after assembly, weaving after weaving, Wattana repeats the chain of movements involved in knotting. Little by little, she refines her gestures, and increases their complexity, developing true technical mastery… simultaneously a rhythmic and a hand-to-hand struggle with the world and its materials, colors, consistencies, achieved with the aid of fiber and cords. … Sometimes she is absorbed in this activity for a whole afternoon, and thus expresses a real taste for the execution of knots. Her sustained attention, the depth of her involvement, and her craving to do it right all testify to this.”

p. 98 Orangutans “their fascination for sophisticated manipulations (their predilection for shoelaces being one example) is far more pronounced than in other primates. This also applies to their greater aptitude for using one tool to create another … p. 100 “plaiting, interlcaing, intertwining,: these are all terms used by primatologists to describe construction techgniques that greay apes use in building their nests. .. Great apes are not satisfied in building a basic bed. They decorate their nests with a plant mattress that some researchers consider artistic. They select their materials according to the available plant life and the shades of green. They then line their nests with Campnosperma branches to protect themselves from mosquitos. .. Some apes systematically bite the tips of the branches used for the fringes of their nest, the edge being composed of twigs of similar appearance and the same length. Some of them fashion a small cushion from plants that they grip tightly against themselves as they sleep. Apes also seem to attach importance to the panorama that can be seen from the bed; they chose the site carefully according to the view. These shelters may also be equipped with ‘roofs; to protect them from sun and rain.”

p.102 “The majority of behaviors devices and tools (associated with body care, sex, games,comfort) belong to what French philosopher Dominique Lestel would describe as an ethology of comfort… The concern for self by self and the simple fact of existing constitute tasks that our societies tend to forget… Great apes experience a power and a pure pleasure of being, which carries them beyond basic needs; to advance towards what for them represent possible sources of comfort, satisfaction, or pleasure.”

p.103 “Tool ideology.. the direction taken by the discipline is built on underlying sweeping dichotomous categories of males versus female, of hard versus soft, of the public versus the private (intimate) domains. Fibres are considered to be soft materials, in contrast to stone, representing the hard. As proposed by Nold Egenter, it would surely be very fruitful to ponder the question of homoisation using construction as a starting point.”

p. 33 “this case of adoption is not uncommon among the great apes. While some females very clearly turn their backs on motherhood, others are strongly attracted to babies.Some go as far as to take care of three infants simultaneously. .. Even if they have no experience at all, cats instinctively know what needs to be done after the birth of their first litter. In fact, great apes are envisaged as the natural counterpart to humankind, as authentic creatures of nature, entirely governed by instinct and subject to biology. .. Yet repeated cases of ape mothers in zoos that show no interest in their babies, or do not know how to look after them, clearly show the process leading to ‘becoming a mother’ is complex. Moreover, this suggests that the notion of ‘matrenal instinct’ as something both universal and automatic, and as the only foundation for this kind of capacity, needs reevaluation for great apes….even when they do have the opportunity to learn from an effective model, young female apes are still deprived of all that is transmitted through the close proximity of bodies: a particular maternal style will influence the baby more surely if it is incorporated, experienced in the flesh and picked up by all the senses.”

p.121 Siri, a 12-year-old Asian elephant … “the female would often trace lines with a stoneon the ground in her enclosure… he provided her with paper, paints,paintbrushes, or pencils. Without being encouraged or rewarded, she freely drew dozens of compositions on sheets of paper.. She produced these in 20 to 30 seconds,sometimes pausing to examine the paintings. … her pictorial techniques evolved considerably over the course of the sessions. .. elephants know what they are doing and clearly enjoy doing it. .. the French philosopher Etienne Sourian, a specialist in aesthetics, showshow much the aesthetic act seems to be linked to ‘impulses stemming from the depths of life’.”

p. 124 Bottlenose dolphins in Hawaii indulged in making bubble rings. “To achieve this, they produced whirlpools with their flippers and then breathed out air through these eddies with their blowholes. In this way they fashioned circles, spirals, tori, vortices and helices. .. Once the bubble rings had been shaped, the dolphins played with them”.

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