Orangutans’ behaviour suggests that they experience complex emotions. This area is not so easy to research but a lot of behavioural observations reveal that orangutans can show empathy and understand the feelings of others. There are also concrete examples of this from the rehabilitation centre Nyaru Menteng.

One of the world’s leading institutions on primates is the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in the US. Many of the center’s studies have repeatedly shown that monkeys respond to distress from other individuals. They also respond to inequality, conflict, loss and countless other emotional situations that were previously thought to be exclusive of humans.

Even from our partner organisation BOSF, there are examples of when orangutans have clearly demonstrated what we would call empathy. One such incident was when a animal keeper, Mama Eva, was struck by a branch in the head by an orangutan who refused to come down from the trees and protested by throwing branches. The branch caused a bleeding cut and she had to be bandaged.

Mama Eva in the Forest School Nyaru Menteng.
Mama Eva in the present Forest School, Nyaru Menteng. Photo: BOSF.

The next day at work, Mama Eva was still in pain from the wound and chose to watch over the forest school pupils from a little further distance than usual. She cried, and this was noticed by one of the orangutans. He walked over and gave her what looked like a hug, as if he understood that she was unwell. His behavior was then picked up by other orangutans and they all came down from the trees to hug Mama Eva as well.

It all led to the keeper getting all the attention and her colleagues simply had to end that day’s teaching early. On the way back to the main facility, all the orangutans chose to stroll together behind Mama Eva.

Du and her adopted baby. Photo: BOSF.

On another occasion, a repatriated and rescued orangutan named Du, chose to adopt an orphaned cub and has raised it as if it was her own.

You can also adopt an orangutan!

While cases like these provide great insight into orangutans’ potential for empathy, further research is needed to fully understand the extent of their emotional nature in comparison to humans and other primates.

This article is dedicated to the primatologist Frans De Waal who was a pioneering researcher on the emotions and intelligence of monkeys. De Waal passed away in March 2024, but his legacy will live on. We thank you for all you have done to help us humans better understand and connect with our impressive ape cousins.

Cover photo: Animal keeper Leta. Photo credits BPI.