It's maybe one of only a few such long-term relationships in the world - an ape and a researcher who have been working together for more than 30 years - but that describes the relationship between the Indianapolis Zoo's Vice President for Life Sciences Rob Shumaker and Azy, a smart and orang-literate great ape.
Rob first met Azy when he started out his zoo career as a volunteer at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington D.C. Azy was actually born at that zoo to parents that were also born in a zoo - the first time that had happened in the United States. After the infant Azy was sent to the Albuquerque Zoo to be reared alongside an orphaned female orangutan, both of the young orangs came to the National Zoo in 1980.
Later, Azy became the first orangutan to participate in cognitive research using computer-generated symbols. He began this work at the National Zoo, where he lived at the Think Tank exhibit and participated in the Orangutan Language Project
starting in 1995.
Rob, meanwhile, learned a lot from Azy during his 20-year stint at the National Zoo, always pursuing his chosen career working with animals. Eventually, both Rob and Azy ended up at the Great Ape Trust
in Des Moines, Iowa, where they continued their professional (and personal) relationship.
Today, both Rob and Azy reside at the Indianapolis Zoo, where the two old friends continue their unique partnership, and where Azy will be one of the stars of the new International Orangutan Center
(IOC), set to open in 2014. Rob's zoo colleagues say that his long relationship with Azy is one of the reasons that Rob Shumaker is recognized internationally for his expertise with apes in general, and orangutans in particular.
Shumaker is especially known for his ability to mix education and science in ways that are both entertaining and impactful, a talent that will be utilized to the nth degree in the new exhibit, where one facet of the experience includes the opportunity for the orangutans to interact directly with guests.
Shumaker also advocates for Azy and the other orangutans, both in human care and in the wild. In addition to writing three books and multiple articles, Rob has made dozens of appearances
in documentaries, all the while working to persuade orangutan owners and trainers to stop using the animals in the entertainment industry.
He also fights for more suitable living arrangements for orangutans in zoos, and with its external high wire travel routes, vertical exhibit space, jungle-gym forest of climbing platforms, and quiet corners for the apes, the IOC will be a crowning achievement
in that regard. The exhibit also emphasizes the threats to orangutans in the wild (they are highly endangered) and offers ways that the public can help to save these fascinating primates.
Although his work now includes working with many more animals than just orangutans, Rob's unique relationship to the species, and to Azy, means they will hold a special place in the daily life of a person who's passionate, creative, and completely dedicated to bringing science education to a new generation of zoogoers.