Curiosity Killed the Orangutan

Intelligent animals in captivity require a variety of innovative and engaging enrichment activities. The most effective method of enrichment is usually through man-made devices (Amrein, 2014), utilising the animals’ innate instincts in an unnatural way. However, in the context of breeding and releasing captive animals into the wild, zoos fail to equip the creatures with the necessary tools needed in order to survive.


Figure One: the ‘trees’ featured in Perth Zoo’s Orangutan Enclosure

Iredale Pedersen Hook’s ‘Perth Zoo Orangutan Exhibit’ (2008) utilises an assortment of materials to pay homage to the resident Sumatran Orangutans’ native environment. The enclosure consists of a series of ‘trees’ simulating the physical complexities of a rainforest, the concrete ‘trunk’ and steel ‘branches’ providing areas of orangutans to interact naturally in an unnatural environment.



Studies from the University of Zurich have shown that wild orangutans are decidedly incurious (Damerius, 2017). Captive orangutans on the other hand couldn’t be more different, readily exploring what their wild counterparts ignore. This is attributed largely to the artificial devices used as mental and physical enrichment for the animals (van Schaik, 1996).

Figure Two: ‘Bubble Enrichment’ that took place at Perth Zoo in 2019


Iredale Pedersen Hook’s enclosure utilises an array of unnatural activities to stimulate the orangutans. The animals engage cognitive thinking through investigation of any novel item placed in their enclosure such as puzzle boxes, dip tubes and water cannons (Iredale Pedersen Hook). This enrichment, while successful, fosters an unhealthy curiosity through the lens of rehabilitation and release.



As they say, curiosity kills the orangutan. In a world of dangers, it is more efficient and less risky to take cues from your more experienced peers. Perth Zoo proudly claims that they are the ‘only zoo in the world releasing zoo-born orangutans in to the wild’ (Perth Zoo). These creatures do not possess the necessary precaution required to survive in the wild.


While the exhibit houses the creatures effectively, the orangutans are not equipped for life without human assistance, known as the ‘captivity effect’ (Forss, 2015). The ‘dip tube’ enrichment tool, where orangutans are tasked with getting food out of a narrow tube (Orangutan, 2015), are made using steel. While this material selection helps to create a harmonious environment, orangutans are conditioned to find nutrition in rigid shapes and dull colours, opposite to the brightly coloured fruit found in their native habitat.

Image Three: Mali the orangutan utilises the dip tube enrichment tool
Image Four: bright coloured and irregular-shaped food orangutans eat in the wild








The concrete ‘tree trunks’ dissuade climbing, and the animals are conditioned to be constantly exposed to the zoo’s visitors. Hunters and poachers, a primary factor to why orangutans are critically endangered (Ting, 2011), would not appear as a threat to the animals that had been reared in a zoo environment.

Figure Five: the concrete tree trunks are unclimbable, so ladders are provided for the orangutans
Figure Six: wild orangutans climb trees to protect themselves from adverse events








Image Seven: orangutans at Perth Zoo are part of the ‘Close Encounters’ experience, normalising the presence of humans


For the architects to design an enclosure for zoos that aim to release orangutans born in captivity into the wild, a restructuring of the zoo typology would be necessary. A naturalistic design approach would have to be taken in order to successfully integrate the captive orangutans into the wild. Visitors would have to be hidden from the orangutans’ vision and observe the animals from afar. This would require a restructure of the visitors’ expectations of what a zoo is, putting the animals needs before the wants of humans.






Figure One: Peter Bennetts. “Orangutan Zoo Exhibit.” 2015.

Figure Two: Perth Zoo. “Bubble fun for Orangutans.” 2019.

Figure Three: “Mali with Dip Tube.” 2015.

Figure Four: “Orangutans Eating.” 2011.

Figure Five: Lain Dawson. “Orangutan Rooftop Experience.” 2016.

Figure Six: “Wild Orangutan Climbing a Tree.” 2020.

Figure Seven: Perth Zoo. “Orangutan Eye to Eye Experience.”





Amrein, Martin., Heistermann, Michael and Weingrill, Tony. “The Effect of Fission–Fusion Zoo Housing on Hormonal and Behavioral Indicators of Stress in Bornean Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus).” International Journal of Primatology 35 (2014): 509-528. DOI:

Damerius, Laura A., Graber, Sereina M., Willems, Erik P., and van Schaik, Carel P. “Curiosity boosts orang-utan problem-solving ability.” Animal Behaviour 134 (2017): 57-70. DOI:

Forss, Sofia I., Schuppli, Caroline., Haiden, Dominique., Zweifel, Nicole., and van Schaik, Carel P. “Contrasting responses to novelty by wild and captive orangutans.” American Journal of Primatology 77, no. 10 (2015): 1109-1121. DOI:

Iredale Pedersen Hook. “Perth Zoo Orang-utan Enclosure.” Accessed April 20, 2021.

Orangutan. “Ugo Blanco.” Published November 2015.

Perth Zoo. “Sumatran Orangutan.” Accessed April 20, 2021.

Ting, Choo Yuan. Orangutan Behaviour In Captivity. Activity Budgets, Enclosure Use and the Visitor Effect. Singapore: National University of Singapore, 2011.

van Schaik, Carel P., Fox, E.A. & Sitompul, A.F. “Manufacture and use of tools in wild Sumatran orangutans.” Naturwissenschaften 83, (1996): 186-188. DOI: