Magical Moments with Nita

(to the German Article)

I fell in love today all over again. For nearly 15 years I have been falling in love with orangutans. Which ones stole my heart the most? There are so many. I suppose they would have to be Lomon, Alma, Beethoven, Pahawan, Sumo, Martizen, Deri, Datos, Samantha, Jeffrey, and my first love that changed my life: Somalia.

And today it happened again. I didn’t realise it until I came home tonight. I spent some time yesterday with Nita, having admired her since I arrived at the Nyaru Menteng Project greeting her everyday, but not really spending time to get to know her.

Let me describe her: Nita has the longest hair of any baby orang-utan I have ever known. She is about 2 to 3 years old with amber coloured eyes. She shuffles around on her bottom, not bothering to straighten her legs, or slides along on the tiles, clutching a towel and cleaning the floor along the way. She doesn’t climb or play with other orangutans, but she plays happily by herself.

Nita is an ex-pet, and as far as I can tell, she was loved and looked after. She doesn’t much like to be dirty, but she’s starting to get used to it. She appears to be in fairly good health—a big appetite and she drinks plenty. We are just waiting for the tests to come back negative so she can go into the forest with the others. For now, she lives in the isolation unit with Kle, Klara, Frankie and Pista.

Recently, because she was on a drip for a little while, Nita has been spending time inside the building rather than on the playground, and today needed a little encouragement to venture back outdoors. When I arrived today, I stood at the door and called her name. From the opposite corner of the room, she slithered along the floor with her towel, stopping every so often as if she had forgotten where she was going. I’d call her name again; she’d look up, and then slide a bit further, manoeuvring her way around obstacles such as other orangutans. Finally, she reached the door and reached up to me.

I took her first to the bench outside and tickled her mercilessly, as she squeaked with delight and covered her face. This was followed by some cuddling to give her a chance to catch her breath. The wind was actually blowing (a rarity in steamy Borneo), and in the middle of an otherwise sweltering day, it was so refreshing in the breeze and out of the rather airless room. Nita lifted her face into the breeze and closed her eyes, taking it all in.

After she dined on a handful of rambutan fruit, I took Nita over to the climbing frame, and sat down on the first rung of a large ladder made of logs. She immediately began to explore this log, running her fingers along the grain, picking off some of the bark and testing it with her nose and then lips and then tongue, exploring with her foot the joins used to build the ladder. Eventually, three of her four “hands” were busy exploring her world, one hand left firmly gripping onto me.

Over time we proceeded one rung at a time up the ladder, until a half hour or so later, we had reached the platform. Here, after a slightly hesitant start, Nita dared to venture a few feet away from me, exploring more of the structure and its features. If boisterous Kle came along, she was immediately back in my arms for protection. As soon as he moved on, she began to explore again, still shuffling along on her bottom, the rough wood fraying her nappy. Eventually, intrigued by a twisted rubber swing hoisted above the platform, Nita reached up, extending her legs at last!

It was not long before Nita realised that from the platform she could see beyond the fence that enclosed the isolation unit and its playground. She watched the technicians and babysitters coming and going, some manoeuvring wheelbarrows laden with a variety of tropical fruits. She gazed for a long time at the baby sun bear wrestling with his older companion in the enclosure adjacent. And she watched as bold older orangutans who had wandered out of Forest School stealthily stole coconuts and great bunches of bananas and climbed high into the tress to indulge in their booty. The wind blew again, and she raised her head and opened her mouth wide to breathe it in deeply, her hair literally flowing in the breeze.

For hours, Nita explored various parts of the playground, the different platforms and the views to be had from each. The babysitters provided us with a ready supply of fresh fruit on the platforms (all for Nita)—her favourite were sweet oranges, which taste a bit like satsumas. But poor Nita didn’t really know how to open the oranges. Thus began a lesson in eating oranges. I showed her how to push her thumb into the bit where the stem used to be, along with how to get a hold of the orange and break it in two, then how to use one’s fingers or lips to pull the segments off one by one from the skin. These she would pop in her mouth and suck on, trying to get all the juice out, but not doing so well. So the next part of the lesson was how to bite the tip of the segment off with your front teeth so that the juice has an opening to escape from when you suck on it. This now meant that Nita was able to get almost all of the goodness out of the segment, and she seemed pleased with the accomplishment. We managed to stretch this lesson out through 4 oranges--my student very attentive at all times--and finally on the last one, she managed to peel the orange herself and proceed with some success on the segments, leaving behind the last two, presumably because she was full up!

In the late afternoon, Ruby came into the unit, suffering from a bit of dehydration. Ruby is bigger than Nita but remarkably gentle. She was very interested to make friends with Nita, and came along to touch her remarkable hair. Nita was not impressed and buried her face into my chest. Ruby took Nita’s leg in her foot, and Nita responded by peeling back Ruby’s toes and pushing her foot away. But Ruby, the social butterfly, was insistent that Nita should be her friend. She brought her face close to Nita’s, who had turned to face this curious creature, and kissed her softly on her eyelids. Nita rebuffed Ruby with another firm push with her foot and Ruby moved along. Ruby didn’t seem put out, but more like she understood that the newcomer was still a bit wary of orangutans. I recalled this reaction from a number of orangutans who tried to make friends with a very reluctant Lomon when he first arrived. They tried a few times to introduce themselves and initiate play, but it seemed they sensed Lomon was frightened of them, and they didn’t bite him or insist too hard. They just let him settle in in his own time. Eventually, when he was ready, it was Lomon who initiated play with another orang-utan.

It was late afternoon and the sky grew dark, threatening another evening of heavy downpours. I took Nita back into the unit, held a bottle for her as she drank, changed her nappy, and gave her a fresh towel to sleep with. She draped the towel around her neck and clutched the ends, and lay herself down without a fuss. I packed up my things, raced home, not quite missing the onslaught of the torrent of rain.

The electricity is out as I write this by candlelight. Everything is quiet bar the sound of frogs and crickets now that the rain has stopped, and the occasional cough or whimper of an orang-utan baby next door in the nursery.

And in this solitude and calm, given a moment to reflect, I am suddenly overwhelmed by such love for little Nita that I have to catch my breath. Somehow, those golden eyes have spoken to me, have told me her story, and have made me know her—all without words. It is hard to explain this feeling, or even to understand it myself, why some orangutans out of the hundreds I have known, affect me in this way. It’s these moments that remind me why I do what I do, and just how privileged I am to know orangutans.

Michelle Desilets
Founder of BOS UK and Orangutan Land Trust

Here you can adopt Nita: BOS - Adopt an Orangutan

Incredible Stories

Short Stories

Lisa - Lady on Fire
Jori - Towering Tall
... waiting for your stories

Long Stories

Project Rika

Imola's Passion

Michelle's Orangutans
Little Nita (English)
Little Nita (German)

... waiting for your stories

Back to Top
Copyright 2007
Author: Imola