Traveling to Borneo without spotting an orangutan is like going to Italy without sampling pizza. It just simply isn’t done. This beautiful ginger-haired member of the ape species is the symbol of Borneo, and as such, you’ll find them on display in just about every nook and cranny that you visit, whether it’s in the form of a Borneo souvenir or as the real deal. Imagine our surprise when we turned up at Poring Hot Springs and ended up having a very up, close and personal rendez-vous with their local celebrity, Jackie the Orangutan.
John and I arrived at Poring Hot Springs late in the afternoon on a scorching hot day in Sabah, Kota Kinabalu. As the sun was setting, we decided to take a walk up into the hills behind the retreat. The path meandered up towards a low-squat building that was set off the worn cement pathway. I immediately headed for an open wrought-iron gate towards the side of the compound, where, we were told, we could find several species of orchids in bloom. Instead, I was greeted by a giant orangutan that came shuffling around the side of the building. I stopped dead, unsure of whether or not I should continue.
Just then, an elderly couple led by a guide came around the corner of the building. They walked right up to the orangutan and squatted down beside it. Fascinated, John and I hung back and watched as the couple did everything to grab the orangutan’s interest. They failed dismally, as the beast apparently had other plans.
She gazed at us for some time and then started loping towards us at a fast pace. John and I scurried back, but she went right past my husband and reached up to the wall behind us, where he had placed his bottle of Coke. Her deft fingers had the cap off within a few seconds, and she began happily chugging away on the sugary concoction.
By then, the guide and elderly couple had joined us and we all stood there and watched as Jackie preoccupied herself with emptying the bottle.
“Is it safe for her to drink that?” I asked the guide.
“Nope, but I wouldn’t try taking it away from her,” he replied. He then proceeded to tell us her story. “Jackie has been with us for quite some time. She’s 22 years old, and she’s lived within area since she was quite young. We met Jackie for the first time after we found her in the forest. She had fallen from a tree and suffered a nasty head trauma that eventually causes her to lose part of her memory.
Jackie’s rehabilitation took so long that by the time she was ready to be released into the wild, she had discovered that she was leading a pretty good life at Poring Hot Springs.
She no longer builds tree nests like normal orangutans. Instead, she covers herself up each night with a black piece of cloth. She’s allowed to roam free, but she seems to prefer the comfort of her very own home. Jackie is actually three times the size of a normal orangutan, and we’re not sure how long she would fare in the wild on her own anymore.”
“She isn’t very shy, is she?” remarked John.
“Not at all. In fact, she’s gotten quite used to humans being around her all the time,” he said. “She doesn’t seem to get very excited about bananas anymore either,” he added glumly.
“I can see that,” I retorted as we all watched Jackie drain John’s Coke bottle right in front of a sign that says, Do Not Feed the Animals! The irony of the situation didn’t escape any of us.
Jackie is obviously a fickle female and we were not able to keep her attention for very long once she had finished her sugary stolen treat.
She quickly found an old mop to play with and parked herself down a few feet away. She was completely oblivious to us as we stooped down beside her for a few quick photo ops. My husband fearlessly stroked her soft reddish-brown hair, but when it was my turn, I couldn’t help but keep one eye on that old broom that she was grasping tightly in her five-toed foot.
John and I visited with Jackie O for a few more minutes until she stood up and walked away without another look back at us. Nevertheless, we were delighted to have made her acquaintance.