This story is one of four written by high school students who participated in The Washington Post’s 2011 Digital Workshop for Young Journalists, each with a corresponding video.
Lying in the straw of her pen in the National Zoo’s Think Tank, Iris, a 34-year-old female orangutan, tossed a ball as she fiddled with her blanket. She glanced out the window to the last stop of “O-Line,” a series of cables and towers that lead the orangutans over pedestrian walkways from the great ape house, and saw another ape sliding down. She dropped everything and lumbered over as the new arrival came closer.
They met on opposite sides of the glass and paused. Iris grabbed the window frame. The visitor did the same. Iris raised her leg out to the side, reaching up over her head. Again, the other ape copied. In this monkey see, monkey do exhibition, it was hard to tell if the glass was a window or a mirror.
Sights like these are commonplace in this interesting and thought provoking exhibit.
Tucked between the great ape house and the lion and tiger pits, “Think Tank is a place to think about thinking,” according to the National Zoo’s Web site. Researchers there study different questions about thought in other animals. How do they communicate? What is their capacity for memory, or their ability to learn and adapt, or to feel empathy? And, most importantly, what can they teach us about ourselves?
The answers to these questions may lie in the minds of the zoo’s six orangutans.
“These are guys that are able to think like we are,” said Think Tank volunteer Betty Reinecke. “They can solve problems. If they’re presented with an obstacle, they can plan their way around it.”
Glancing at Kiko and Iris, the two apes in the Tank on this day, it’s hard to tell they are anything like us. Their matted red fur hangs in knots, tangled with the straw that covers their enclosure’s floor. But their eyes gaze knowingly out of the pen as they scan the crowds of children fogging the glass with their breath. Just who is studying whom here?
“Well, they’re not that different after all,” Reinecke said. “Our DNA is something like 90 percent the same.”
Our DNA may be similar, but what exactly does that mean when it comes to thinking? This is the underlying question for researchers here. Are these apes capable of some of the things that we believe make human beings unique as a species?
“I think that we as humans like to hold ourselves at a very high level,” said great ape keeper Erin Stromberg, a researcher and caretaker at the exhibit. “It was thought that only humans could make tools, and that’s what set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Well, not only can all the great apes make tools, monkeys can make tools, birds can make tools, dolphins can make tools. So here we have this characteristic that we thought only we could do, that was unique to us, and really, it’s not.”
At any time, several research projects are being done at the Tank, studying everything about the primates’ minds, including high-level topics like metacognition (knowing your own mental limitations).