On November 10, 1968, a female orangutan named Eloise was born at the Los Angeles Zoo in Southern California. In the 46 years since, she’s thrived at the zoo, giving birth in 1981 to a little girl named Rosie, who also still lives with mom and the rest of the zoo's orangutans. But it’s not been easy. From the time she was born, Eloise has suffered from a cerebral palsy-like disorder that makes it hard for her brain to communicate with her muscles.

Eloise investigates her new enclosure. 

As with humans who live with the impairment, like American actor RJ Mitte who played Walter “Flynn” White Jr. on Breaking Bad, Eloise has a limited range of motion. Her muscles are tighter than those of other orangutans, and her feet are permanently curled up, making it difficult for her to move through her enclosure. Nobody knows exactly how she developed the condition. Most believe that her umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck during delivery, which would have briefly deprived her brain of oxygen. Since that can lead to similar conditions in human children it’s a reasonable guess, but as Eloise was born long before any of the zoo’s current staff were employed there, nobody really knows for sure.

Nearly half a century later, Eloise is all smiles. She ambles around with great care and deliberation and with a fair amount of effort, but she’s still quite an able ape. Early this morning, she seemed to enjoy the attention of a small group of journalists who gathered at the zoo for an early glimpse at the newly redesigned orangutan habitat.

While the animal care staff leads her through a physical therapy session every day, the zoo decided it was time to rebuild the orangutans’ enclosure with Eloise’s special needs in mind. 

eloise-structure-nancy bunn-2015-8-27
The new enclosure provides ample room for the orangutans to climb. Image: Nancy Bunn/LA Zoo

“The old netting was worn out,” said Cathleen Cox, Director of Research for the LA Zoo. “We didn’t feel it was safe to leave the orangutans out without someone watching them all the time to make sure they weren’t fraying it a little too much.” When the zoo decided to replace the mesh netting, enrichment coordinator Nancy Adams knew it was her chance to rebuild everything else.

The goal, says Cox, was to provide the orangutans with more usable space, especially vertically. There are new platforms suspended from telephone poles, with bridges between them and artificial vines, made from used fire hoses, criss-crossing the whole habitat.

The new enclosure also provides human visitors with an orangutan encounter that’s more like what they’d see in the wild. These animals spend most of their time high in the trees, so by making the exhibit more vertical, visitors are more likely to be able to watch the orangutans at eye level or higher.

But every feature of the habitat was designed to be accessible for Eloise. For example, every ladder has a used fire hose going right up the middle to provide her with extra surfaces for pulling herself up or from which to hang down. And every platform has small, fire-hose railings running along the edges, meant to prevent her from falling off. Because orangutans are so skilled with their hands, every screw and bolt is welded together to prevent them from unscrewing anything.

“We knew if Eloise was able to access all of the structures and move freely throughout the different spaces, then the rest of the family would thrive in the new environment as well,” said Adams.

Perhaps more than anybody else at the zoo, Adams has to get inside the minds of the animals she cares for and try to imagine how they might use their space. Her designs were inspired by the feeding platforms she saw on a visit to the Sepilok orangutan sanctuary in Borneo. It might not look quite like their rapidly disappearing forest habitat, but the red apes can now enjoy a physical environment that’s a lot closer to what they would use in the wild. And that allows them to behave, move and think more like wild orangutans.

Eloise's daughter, Rosie, enjoys the new fire hoses. Image: Tad Motoyama/LA Zoo

"To have a vision in your mind, and then to put that onto paper, and then see it built out, and [the orangutans] utilising it the way you hoped they would ... my joke is they never read the directions, they just do whatever they want," she said. "I’m sure they’ve got sore butt muscles from using muscles they haven’t used in a long time."

The only feature that the apes were unsure of was a bridge that sits twenty feet in the air. Finally, a four-year-old female named Elka attempted to traverse it, her face betraying her indomitable curiosity. The rest of the family soon followed.

Meanwhile, the zoo’s orangutan keepers and veterinarians continue to guide Eloise through her physical therapy, though some of that work can now be accomplished as she simply moves around her home over the course of each day. In the wild, Eloise would probably not have survived this long. She would probably not have successfully delivered a baby. 

Despite being free from the difficulties Eloise faces, wild orangutans continue to lose their few remaining natural habitats in Borneo and Sumatra to logging and palm oil plantations. That’s why Eloise and her family serve as important ambassadors for the world’s only two orangutan species, inspiring humans to care for their primate cousins half a world away.

Because of her limited mobility, Eloise uses her forearms to pull herself up. Image: Jason G. Goldman

Top header image: 10-year old female "Berani," Brandi Andres/LA Zoo