It would not be inaccurate to describe me as having a bleeding heart when it comes to animals. It’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t make a great field researcher. The natural world, as Tennyson wrote, is often “red in tooth and claw,” and although I have recently fallen off the Vegetarian wagon I am not well-suited to the more brutal aspects of ethology.
Orangutan rehabilitation/reintroduction centers, on the other hand, lift my spirits. Although their existence stems from unfortunate circumstances — most of the resident apes are rescued orphans — their mission is one founded in hope.
So imagine my delight today when I saw this news story about surgeons in Sumatra who restored a blind orangutan’s sight. The 40-year-old female was blind in both eyes as a result of cataracts, but will now be able to see the babies she gave birth to last year.
Some scientists probably question the legitimacy of this intervention. As the news story notes, Gober was captured from the wild in 2008 “for her own safety,” despite the fact that the potential danger of her situation was not man-made. Had people not stepped in, she likely would have died before reproducing again, removing her genes from the population. And in theory one could make an objective scientific argument in favor of that sequence of events: “That’s natural selection, folks. Who are we to interfere?”
But here’s the thing. The news story also notes that Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered. In fact, both Sumatran and Bornean orangutans are endangered, and could entirely disappear from the wild* within our lifetime. The combined threats of illegal logging, expanding palm oil plantations, hunting, and the illegal pet trade have drastically reduced their effective population sizes, and conditions show no signs of improving. Without human action, there soon won’t be any orangutans for objective scientists to study.
It’s not an easy situation to address. But in this case human action resulted in the birth of two orangutans, and gave their mother the ability to see (and presumably help raise) them.
That’s a bleeding heart intervention I can easily get behind.
*The captive orangutan population of North America numbers a little over two hundred individuals. I offer no comment on orangutans living in captivity elsewhere, as I am not as familiar with the zoos of Europe, Asia, Africa, or other places.