Great Animal Dads for Father’s Day - Meet MadjuJune 13, 2019
One of the most common topics we get asked about as zookeepers concerns the family lives of animals. Across the animal kingdom, animal mothers and fathers have different levels of involvement in the development of babies. Some parents simply create, lay eggs, and the offspring never even see their parents! Some animal parents take equal roles in raising offspring. Some animal species even require a village, with all members of a large group participating in the feeding, raising, and protecting of young. At the orangutan habitat, these questions pop up quite frequently since we have a social group comprised of an orangutan mom, dad, and baby. You may remember Malu, a baby orangutan and her parents – Luna, her mom and Madju, her dad. As Malu clings to Luna’s back, making her level of responsibility quite obvious, much of the curiosity surrounds Madju. What does an orangutan dad do? Well, if you’re Madju, you go above and beyond what is expected of animal fathers, making him the perfect animal to highlight this Father’s Day.
Let’s first talk a bit about what is “normal” and “expected” for male orangutans and their habitat. Orangutans, as a species, are solitary. You won’t see them living in large family groups, also known as called a "congress". When it comes to breeding, orangutans, who we will refer to as mom and dad, typically have “date night” and that ends dad’s involvement in the rearing of his offspring. This leaves mom solely responsible for raising the baby orangutan, which she will do for the next 7-8 years (the longest “childhood” of any animal besides humans). Under managed care, mature male orangutans often ignore their offspring, at least as long as the babies tolerate being ignored. Once the offspring are old enough to explore, they typically attempt to interact with the other individuals they live with, including their dad. Father orangutans are often noted for gentle playing with their offspring and tolerating their sometimes obnoxious antics.
As soon as Malu was born, Madju immediately showed us that he was not going to be the typical orangutan dad. His own obnoxious antics earned him a few sharp lessons from Luna about how to be gentle with the baby. Determined to enjoy his son, Madju quickly learned how to interact and earned Luna’s trust. It is unusual for orangutan mothers to allow other orangutans to carry their babies, but Luna soon began to trust Madju and allow him and Malu to have some father/son time. As Malu has grown and become more independent, he has begun to seek Madju out for playtime. They spend hours wrestling, biting, and chasing each other. They have favorite spots on their habitats where they like to play. Often, you can see them wrestling on the “spire” at the base of the middle tower on the orangutan habitat, and you can sometimes see them playing at the top of the towers. Madju is always gentle with Malu, but if Malu wants to go back to his mom, Madju will hold his hand and help him walk back to Luna.
Many people ask us about what is “natural” for orangutan dads. Orangutans are primarily observational learners. This means that they learn what they are shown. So, what is natural for Madju is to behave the way he has been taught. Madju came to Busch Gardens from the Auckland Zoo in New Zealand, where he lived with his mom and dad. His dad, Charlie, was always gentle and played with Madju frequently. Madju has clearly validated the old saying “like father, like son,” and it is amazing to think that he could be teaching his son these very same behaviors. Watching Madju and Malu’s relationship blossom is incredibly rewarding. I am so thrilled for Malu that he has such an awesome dad! The next time you visit the orangutan habitat, check the towers and the spire and see if you can get a glimpse of the two playing together. It’s truly heartwarming to witness!