Behind the Scenes at the National Zoo

Recently, Fanny Cornejo, PEN's Regional Coordinator for Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, joined me in Washington, DC  to attend meetings with prospective partners, as well as participate in a behind-the-scenes tour at the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

Fanny and I visited the great ape building, which houses the gorillas and orangutans.  Amanda Bania, Great Ape Keeper, introduced us to the zoo's orangutans and talked about their positive reinforcement training (the apes' participation is voluntary).  This training involves asking the apes to present different body parts to monitor their health.  The keepers check their chest for cardiac ultrasound, mouth for teeth inspection, ears for body temperature through a thermometer, and ask them to present their shoulder for voluntary injection.

We asked Amanda if her position as a keeper involved educating the public about primate conservation.  Amanda said that the zoo's mission is to educate and inspire.  She and her team give daily keeper talks, catered mostly towards students and families.  These talks provide a platform for introducing the apes and sharing information about their captive welfare, behavior, and threats to their survival in the wild.

During our discussion, Amanda cited the following quote by Robert M. Pyle: "What we know, we may choose to care for.  What we fail to recognize, we certainly won't."  She said that this quote summed up how she felt about primate education.

When I asked Fanny about her experience, she replied, "My knowledge about great apes has been limited as a Neotropical primate researcher and educator, so I was excited to learn about gorillas and orangutans and see them up close and personal."

Many thanks again to Amanda Bania and the National Zoo for this special opportunity!
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Posted in Primate Education Network
One comment on “Behind the Scenes at the National Zoo
  1. Shawn Thompson says:

    I did some fascinating interviews with orangutan keepers at zoos for my book on orangutans, The Intimate Ape, and aside from the issue of whether an intelligent fellow primate like this should be kept in captivity, learned that keepers have unusual insights into apes.

    This reminds me that I am offering a unique opportunity to see orangutans up close in the jungle of Borneo in the fundraising eco-tour I am leading in May. The tour raises funds for a non-profit orangutan foundation on whose board I sit. Anyone who would like to join me and see orangutans in the jungle is welcome to come. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

    I can be reached by email at

    Shawn Thompson
    Author of The Intimate Ape: Orangutans and the Secret Life of a Vanishing Species

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