Urban living

The future of orangutans rests on the shoulders of SN&R’s Primate of the Year

Under pressure: Urban’s orangutan relatives in Sumatra are extremely endangered. It’s up to him to step up to the plate and procreate.

Under pressure: Urban’s orangutan relatives in Sumatra are extremely endangered. It’s up to him to step up to the plate and procreate.

SN&R Photo By Nicholas Miller

Blankets rather than palm leaves dangle from branches, cardboard shipping boxes that once held yams are littered about, the sun creeps into the sky and Urban plants himself firmly at the base of a giant tree, back to the world. His long, persimmon-colored dreadlocks flare wildly—bad case of morning hair?—a bald spot on his lower back, a lone sign that now, at 26 years, he’s middle aged. But Urban’s still a smooth fella—even calculating, inspecting the morning’s offerings of wild oats and hay with a boss-of-it-all nonchalance.

“People ask, ‘Why don’t you comb him? Why don’t you bathe him?’” says Leslie Field, the Sacramento Zoo’s lead keeper and supervisor, of the orangutan’s gnarly dreads. “Not, if you’re an orang. That is ‘orang pretty.’”

But good looks have only gotten Urban so far. Although he’s in his prime—mature cheek flanges a signal to females that he’s full-grown and ready for some action—he can’t get any ladies knocked up.

“We’ve had many females here for him but none conceived,” Leslie explains. A management group that oversees orangutan breeding is hot on Urban, who’s the only surviving offspring of his father. Urban’s got exceptional, top-percentile genes, but it’s what’s in his so-called jeans that might not be up to snuff. “He actually likes Ginger, who’s menopausal,” Leslie jokes of Urban’s roomie, a 52-year-old female who’s bathing in the sunlight atop the tree canopy.

It’s not that he has no game or is fugly. “When the girls start to fight, he sort of puts one hand on one and one hand on the other and forces them apart,” Leslie says. “He looks very tired at the end of the day.” Perhaps Urban’s just down and out, on a losing streak.

“We’ve recently just had a series of females. We don’t know what the answer is—if it’s really Urban or if it’s the girls,” she continues. “It seems to be that the females Urban likes aren’t very cyclic in nature, which is not very conducive to breeding.”

But at 26, Urban needs to lay off the older broads (you cougar bait) and start chasing younger, more fertile skirt. Fortunately, he’s got another 25 years to go at it, and as Leslie notes, “He can breed pretty much until he dies.”

In the meantime, let a player play, right?

Maybe, but it’s really no joking matter: Orangutans are very endangered. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources estimates that 7,000 Sumatran orangs, like Urban, remain in the wild. Their future is bleak: United Nations scientists believe that deforestation could wipe out Urban’s kin by 2012. And survival ain’t easy: poachers, loggers, miners, forest fires—enemies are manifold. Needless to say, Urban’s got the weight of the orang world on his shoulders.

And then there’s his greatest enemy: palm oil.

“A lot of products we buy include palm oil as an additive,” Leslie explains. Your breakfast at the greasy-spoon, afternoon snack, popcorn at the movies—pretty much any preservative-filled food thrown down your gullet contains palm oil. At first, industry opened palm-oil plantations in Sumatra with the best of intentions, namely to harvest an alternative biofuel. Years later, the results have been an ecological nightmare: the rain forest being pillaged at an unprecedented rate; Indonesia, where most palm oil is harvested, has become the third-largest contributor to global warming (after the United States and China). For a born-and-raised Sacramentan like Urban, that’s heavy.

No pressure, buddy—you’re only one of the most important primates on the entire planet.

Urban came into this world on February 18, 1981, the second child to parents Josephine and Baldy, who lived at the Sacramento Zoo for over 40 years. His father passed away in the mid-’90s; his mother now lives at the San Diego Zoo, where she has been a surrogate for three babies. Urban’s lived in Sacramento all his life.

“Twenty-six years later, he’s this giant, gorgeous orang,” Leslie praises, noting that not only are his genes superb, but his physique also is tops, especially his impressive 8-foot-10-inch wingspan. He’s a dominant alpha-male, but on the flip side is surprisingly calm—even reclusive, unhurried. “Orangs, because they’re semi-solitary, their whole behavior is a quieter persona,” Leslie says, and she’s right: Even though Urban is more than 10-times stronger than humans, he moves with a grace and agility unexpected of a 300-plus-pound powerhouse.

“If you make a mistake on a door or a lock, they will make note of that right away,” and orangs have been known to store pins in their cheeks and pick locks. But trainers are never face-to-face with the animals. “Even though they are born in captivity, they are wild. You don’t get a grace period.”

But Urban’s also got a soft side. When his morning treat, or “enrichment,” is tossed from the rocks above, he scampers to it, unfurling a sheet of brown paper covered with jam, which he gently licks.

And then there’s Urban’s idiosyncratic daily vitamin routine: He drinks juice in a Dixie cup then puts vitamins inside, squishes the bottom, and then he licks the cup clean. He’s distinctive, but will Urban’s finesse translate to the bedroom? The world, and everyone at the zoo, is watching.

Of course, today he’s too busy tooling around with his pile of oat hay, hording a stash away from his female roomies. He has with him the yams’ box, hiding his head in it while covering himself with a blanket. Too early to worry about procreation.

“People say ‘Look at those dumb animals. They just sit there,’” Leslie says. “After working with them all these years, they are one of the smartest creatures on this planet.

“Smarter than some people I know.”

For getting more action than the average scenester, takin’ it real easy and being the last hope for the orangutan species, Urban is SN&R’s Primate of the Year.