Azy, the Escape Artist

One of the most common questions visitors have when they witness in awe the orangutans traveling on the O-Line at Smithsonian’s National Zoo (SNZ): “Do they ever fall?!?” After all,  the O-Line is an impressive 50-foot-high system of cables that leads from the Great Ape House to the Think Tank building. Although we’re fairly certain that no orangutans have fallen (they are, after all, made for climbing and swinging from great heights), there have been instances of orangutans escaping from one of the eight O-Line towers, despite an electric barrier that applies a shock to help prevent such incidents. (Disclaimer: No primates were injured during the events about to unfold!)

Meet one such escape artist: Azy.

First, a bit of back story. I stumbled across this amazing photo of Azy while flipping through a slideshow that accompanies a story about orangutans on National Geographic‘s website.

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Azy, a 40-year-old orangutan born at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. He now resides at the Indianapolis Zoo.
(Photo credit: Ian Nichols, National Geographic)

After discovering that this handsome guy used to live at SNZ, my home zoo, I had to learn more about him. Little did I know, I was about to discover some very interesting tidbits of SNZ history!

It turns out that not only is Azy very handsome, he is also super intelligent.

Born at SNZ on December 14, 1977, Azy had a rough start to life. Diagnosed with multiple infections to the mouth and elbow, he underwent multiple surgeries to help clear them up. It took a few months, with around-the-clock care, for the infections to clear, but he eventually made a full recovery. Once he was strong enough Azy was sent to the Albuquerque Zoo in 1978 to be with a surrogate mother; he then returned to the National Zoo in 1980. A year later, the new Great Ape House opened, but it wasn’t until 1994 that the SNZ orangutans would enjoy the O-Line for the first time.

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Orangutans Bonnie, in the tub, and Azy relaxing at the new Great Ape House, Smithsonian’s National Zoo, 1981. Photo credit: Jesse Cohen, Smithsonian Institution Archives

It didn’t take long after the O-Line opened for the wily teenager to pull his stunt. While current SNZ resident Bonnie was the first to cross on the cables, according to employees, Azy seemed uninterested at first. However, after watching another current SNZ orangutan, Iris, cross, Azy decided to give it a try . . . or so his keepers thought. He then stepped on the electrified wires (shocking his hand and foot), swung down from the tower, and made his way to the ground. From there, he apparently started heading to the Think Tank building on foot down the public walkway! Shortly thereafter, Azy was sedated by a veterinarian and returned to his enclosure. This was Azy’s first and last trip on the O-Line.

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The front page of the SNZ employee newsletter, The Gnu Yak Times, November-December 1994, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 12-091, Box 1.

Perhaps researchers at SNZ realized that Azy’s intelligence should be put to good use. In 1995, Azy began participating in the SNZ Orangutan Language Project with Rob Shumaker in the Think Tank building. He went on to do amazing things in the language lab and became renowned for his ability to use a language of geometric symbols to communicate. In one video, which appears to be recorded during his time at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa (where he lived from 2004 to 2010), researchers indicate that he understands 72 words!

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A photo of Azy from the Indianapolis Zoo Facebook page

From adventurous teenager to smart, gentle giant, it is clear that Azy has been a beloved orangutan throughout his life. Last December his current home, the Indianapolis Zoo, threw him an impressive 40th birthday party, complete with a 13-ton limestone statue of Azy placed at the zoo’s entrance.

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Azy statue at Indianapolis Zoo (credit: The Beard and The Baker blog)

It might be time to head to Indianapolis to visit this amazing creature!

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A painting created by Azy still hangs in the Think Tank building at SNZ.

Featured image caption: Azy in 1994 (Jesse Cohen, Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Fun Fact: According to SNZ primate keeper Erin Stromberg, Azy is the full brother of Iris and half brother to Kiko, both current resident orangutans.

Sources

Baltimore Sun, “Maybe animals aren’t so dumb Cognition: Animal behavior is simply the product of conditioning . . . Or is something more going on? Researchers would like to know the answer,” June 8, 1997 (http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1997-06-08/news/1997159047_1_azy-animal-behavior-orangutan)

BBC Earth, “Orangutan understands 72 words!” (video), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kwslHICR7K4

IndyStar, “Beloved Indianapolis Zoo orangutan, Azy, gets a special birthday bash,” December 14, 2017 (https://www.indystar.com/story/news/2017/12/14/beloved-indianapolis-zoo-orangutan-azy-gets-special-birthday-bash/954072001/)

NPR Morning Edition, “Study: Orangutans Show New Ape Talent,” December 21, 2001 (https://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2001/dec/orangutan/011219.orangutan.html)

Smithsonian Institution. Annual Report 1978. https://archive.org/details/smithsonianyeara1978smit/

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azy_(orangutan))

Yowell, Ginger, “The Great Escape,” Smithsonian Archives blog, December 27, 2011 (https://siarchives.si.edu/blog/great-escape)