Houston Community Comes Swinging in to Help Our Orangutans!

Post by Tammy Buhrmester

What do firemen, Girl Scouts, and primate keepers all have in common? They all played a role in helping the Houston Zoo orangutans swing around their exhibit. The orangutans at the Houston Zoo needed more ways to swing and climb. Previously, we used thick ropes strung across the exhibit, but between the Houston humidity and the heavy use of the orangutans, the ropes kept fraying and coming down. The decision was made to make stronger man-made “vines” to help the orangutans move more naturally as they would in the wild.


Orangutans are very arboreal; they are the world’s largest tree dwelling animal. (Recent studies have shown that they do come down to the ground fairly often, but they prefer to move in the trees.) Orangutan’s forearms are 30 percent longer than their legs, and both their hands and feet are equally capable of gripping branches of trees. They have opposable thumbs just like we do, but they also have the extra benefit of having opposable big toes (Wouldn’t that be handy?). Orangutans travel in the canopy of trees and maintain hold of branches with at least two limbs and can hang upside down from both feet.

Not only do the orangutans travel using trees, they also sleep in the trees at night. Orangutans make a new nest every night. Orangutans fold branches inwards and underneath them, as well as weave in smaller, leafy branches to build a comfy bed at night.

So how did we help the Houston Zoo orangutans swing and climb? First, we reached out to local fire stations and asked them for any old fire hoses that they were not using. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that several fire houses wanted to help the orangutans. We had over 60 rolls of fire hoses donated from many fire stations in the Houston area and from many outlying suburbs.

So now that we had the fire hoses, how did we make them look like vines? A local Girl Scout, Megan Contreras, was working on her Gold award, which is the highest award achievable in the Girl Scouts. She approached the primate staff wanting to learn about enrichment for the primates in the Houston Zoo. With help from her friends and chapter members, Megan was able to come to the Zoo and paint the fire hoses. With some splatters of brown, dark green, light green and yellow, the “vines” were coming alive.


Now that our vines were made, it was up to the staff to hang them in places that would benefit the orangutans. In one afternoon, the staff was able to hang 14 “vines” and 2 hammocks. With extra “vines” left over, it was possible to hang some in the chimpanzee exhibit which added to the chimpanzee’s ability to locomote arboreally, as well.

Now, when you come to the primate section at the Zoo you will see our orangutans and chimpanzees swinging, climbing, playing, and resting on the “vines” created by our generous Houston community. We thank you all!!

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