Who Are You? by Jennifer Skiff

A human, an orangutan, a heart-to-heart communion

Jennifer Skiff’s book Rescuing Ladybugs: Inspiration Encounters with Animals that Changed the World is an inspiring and insightful look at the deep connections between humans and animals. In the following passages from the book, Skiff introduces a remembrance by Willie Smits, a microbiologist who is a leading animal welfare advocate in Indonesia, working in particular on behalf of the endangered orangutan population. In the remembrance, Smits describes an extraordinary encounter with an orangutan.
—The Editors

While I was working on Willie’s story, I received an unexpected document from him. It was a letter he wrote in 2002 to a newly rescued and frightened orangutan whom he had met while walking around a quarantine compound one night when he couldn’t sleep. When I read it, I felt humbled that he’d shared it with me. I was also moved to tears, grateful for the opportunity to get a real glimpse into his world. I asked Willie if I could share it with you, and he kindly agreed.
—Jennifer Skiff

Samboja Lestari, Borneo

All of a sudden you wake up, frightened, having heard this noise in the dark of the night so close to your sleeping place. A dark shadow stands in front of you, and you move back to the wall and shriek. Who would this stranger in the night be? With your head pulled even deeper between your shoulders and your legs and arms tightly held to your small body, you carefully look back to me in the gray shades of this moonlight night. It’s just me, a lonely man who cannot sleep after he heard Romeo, Jabba, and Pap call in the night. Their mighty voices still seem to tremble on in my chest. The longing and sadness in their voices make me want to sit and talk with a friend, just to feel a little understanding during a night that will last several more hours. The songs of the cicadas also seem sadder tonight. After all those years in darkness under the soil, now they’re using their precious short time in the trees to find their mates and reproduce by singing with all their might. So here I am, a large stranger in the shadows in front of your cage, waking you from dreams I so much would like to know, to understand, to share….

I squat down close to your cage, and in the faint light I start to see your eyes and you see mine. I shriek while pouting my lips and moving my head slightly backward to tell you that it is okay, you do not need to be worried about this new person of the night. You answer me and slowly turn around toward me. I call you again and offer the back of my hand against the bars that separate us. I see your worried, interested eyes, and I feel so much warmth for you, so much pity that here you have to sit alone because the humans that robbed your mother’s life also gave you the disease for which you are being treated in this small confined space. And you read my eyes and come toward me, keeping your eyes fixed to mine. Then you smell the back of my hand and gently taste it with the tip of your tongue. You have decided you want to know me, and I wonder what you will do next.

You look in my eyes again, and yours tell me you want me to touch you. Gently I scratch your jaw and the area behind your little ear. You look to the side and let me, but your head is still a bit low. You have decided to trust me, but we are not friends yet. You are lonely and need a friend as much as I do this sleepless night, so I caress your cheeks and the side of your fine fuzzy lips. Your lips are so incredibly soft, soft as the finest baby cheeks, and you turn your gaze toward my face. You are so beautiful, so soft, so gentle, and how much I want to ease your fears and pain. Then you smile, more with your eyes than your lips, and I wonder what your name is, where you came from. I want to know all about you, I want to get to know you. Why are you in the quarantine cage by yourself?

Again, you read my eyes. I cannot hide anything from you, not even in this sparse light. You see my feelings and now know it is really okay. You move my caressing hand to your belly, and I am happy to comply. You lean your head against your arm, holding it tight with your long leathery fingers, and for a few meandering minutes we both enjoy this cozy peace. Then you decide to ask me for help and gently you push my hand toward the padlock on your cage. I know you want me to open the lock but I don’t have the key. I pull, I twist, I use force but to no avail, and you know I cannot open it, and when you make an effort yourself, you don’t even try hard for you already know it cannot be done, for you have attempted it before. Still you gently push me with your arms stretched through the bars toward the other door and padlock and ask me to try this one, please. Again I oblige, and you feel the muscles in my arm getting hard and the shaking of your cage from the force with which I pull the lock. You sit back and so do I. I shriek and you acknowledge I tried. Then you look around, and from the corner of your cage you take an orange and give it to me. Gratefully I start peeling and we share several pieces. While eating you look in my eyes. Relaxed, these two lonely minds just enjoying the time together, tasting the sweet parts, both spitting out the slippery seeds, looking into each other’s eyes.

Then you look to the trees behind me, and I know what you are saying. How nice it would be to sleep in your nest again, close to the warm body of your loving mother. I stand up and your slightly worried eyes follow my every step. I break off leafy branches and together we push and pull them to your side of the bars. Now that is a real smile! It is so much fun to arrange the branches and the leaves, to construct the nest. Your busy hands push and shove, pull and rearrange again. Then you smell the leaves and look intensely at them. You look at me and hand me a leaf. You bring it to my lips and show me that I should try it. Okay, I’ll try. Hmmm, this leaf is bitter; also, the hairs on its surface are unpleasant to my tongue and an astringent feeling to the back of my tongue makes me spit out the leaf. You look at the fallen crumbled wet leaf just out of reach. Again, you offer me a leaf and ask me to try once more. Okay, but this one tastes just as bad. You ask me to open my mouth and gently take the piece from my lips and smell and taste it. Now you believe me and let it fall! See, it is bitter and no good. You look for another orange from your storage corner and peel it for the two of us. Yes, this helps to get rid of the bitter taste; you are so right. One piece for me, then one for you and again. You are so nice, so fair.

Then your eyes change, and you look me deeper in my eyes. I feel a shiver; what is it that you want, that you think? You ask me for my hand, and when I offer it, you gently guide it through the bars and unfold my fingers. Then gently, carefully so as not to scare me, you take my index finger between your lips and then deeper between your teeth. Slowly your mouth encloses my finger and gently you suck on my finger. Then harder, and you hold my arm in place with the long fingers of your hand. Then your eyes move up to the trees away from my eyes, and all of a sudden I feel shocked and I shiver. You are crying; you are so sad! No tears, but your eyes! They tell it all. What pain they show, looking up into those trees. Are you remembering your mother’s breast, your beautiful exciting life up in the trees, her smile, her gentle touch? Tears fill my eyes for I cry with you. How much I want to take away this pain, this suffering, but all I can do is to let you suck my finger while you think of times long gone. Who are you? What happened to you? I want to know!

After seemingly endless time in shared sadness you abruptly let go and turn away. You sit against the bars looking out the other side, your back toward me. When I stand up with cramped legs, you just shriek and barely look back at me. Do you remember the people who killed your mother? Do you need to be alone with your sadness, your frustrations? I need to get you out of that cage, make life better for you. You are so special; let me get to know you better. Clouds cover the moon, 
and when I walk away in the night, 
I hear you shriek. In a few hours, I will be back…. ◆

From the book Rescuing Ladybugs. Copyright  © 2018 by Jennifer Skiff. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com

This piece is featured in the Summer 2020 issue of Parabola, PRESENCE. Find the full issue or subscribe in our online store.

By Jennifer Skiff

Jennifer Skiff is an award-winning journalist who worked as a correspondent for CNN for more than a decade. Passionate about animals and their welfare, she serves as a trustee, adviser, and spokesperson for charities the world over. For more information, please visit JenniferSkiff.com.