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ASAT 2019: Barbara Heidenreich – Training to Improve Welfare of Orangutans in Borneo


Barbara Heidenreich is an animal training and behavior consultant specializing in avian, exotic and zoo animal training.  She travels and teaches all over the world and has been involved in many fascinating training projects. In past conferences, she has talked about her work as a consultant within the zoo and exotic animal community.

At this conference she shared the work she has done with orangutans in Borneo. Orangutans have become endangered through habitat loss (their range has been reduced by 55% in the last 20 years) and because they are slow to reproduce. They have also been affected by fires and poaching. Because her presentation had a lot of video, I wasn’t sure how to go about presenting my notes, but I think her work is important enough that I wanted to share what I could. Perhaps it will inspire other people who are interested in working on similar projects.

The work Barbara described was done at a facility run by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF). This organization cares for a large number of orangutans (approx 550). Some of these are non-releasable for various reasons (TB, other illnesses, unable to fend for themselves, etc.). Others are orphaned babies or those recovered from the pet trade. The young ones are raised and released into safe sites. Barbara was hired as part of a team of consultants who were brought in to help train the orangutans and teach the staff.

Projects like this can be great opportunities to expand your knowledge and make a real difference, but working in a place like Indonesia has its drawbacks. These include health risks (TB, Typhoid and Dengue fever), the weather (it’s very hot and humid), limited access to medical care, limited wifi, and the need to travel to remote locations. You may also have to deal with cultural differences and language barriers that require you to be flexible when working with resident trainers and going out and about.

Working with Adult Orangutans

Working with orangutans can be challenging. They weigh 150-300 pounds as adults and can spit, throw things, grab, and bite. The males are usually solitary and very powerful, but even the younger orangutans can be dangerous. They are also known for being “wicked smart.”

Barbara described and had video of some of the training she did while she was there. She helped teach the staff how to train the animals to shift (move from one space to another) and cooperate for medical and husbandry behaviors. A lot of her work is based on targeting. Targeting can be used to ask an animal to hold a certain position for husbandry or medical procedures such as nail care, injections, or spraying with betadine.

Her goal was to make it easier for the trainers on both a daily basis (for routine tasks) and to teach them some strategies that they could use to handle problem behaviors (aggression, stereotypies, fear issues). She had a nice example of how they taught an orangutan to trade “trash” in his enclosure for other items so that his space was kept clean. She also showed how they taught the males to shift, which they may not want to do if they are moving from a space they prefer to another less preferred location.

Working with Baby Orangutans

The adult orangutans are kept in large cages, but the babies and young orangutans are kept in groups and taken to “forest school” every day. Forest school is a location in their natural habitat (woods, small open areas) where the babies are taught survival skills and allowed to practice what it would be like to live on their own. There are usually 20-40 animals plus 5 babysitters who go out to this location and spend the day there. At the end of the day, they return home to the main facility.

After an individual has been in forest school for 6-8 years, he or she is eligible for release on safe islands that are used as pre-release sites. While the orangutans are on the islands, they are provided with some food and support, but the goal is to eventually release them into the wild where they live on their own. So far, the program has been very successful at releasing orangutans back into the wild.

Not every baby orangutan loves forest school (sound familiar?). Sometimes one will try to return back to their night-time housing too early. And some babies are more timid than others about trying new things. Barbara described how they use randomly placed food packets to encourage the babies to stay in the forest and interact more with their surroundings.

She also described some of the other challenges when working with the babies. They often like to climb or grab on to their caretakers and can become quite aggressive when the person tries to disengage. If a young orangutan does become a problem in this way, then that individual is moved to a separate cage and doesn’t get to go to Forest school, which is a necessary step if it is going to be released. So, it’s very important that the babies are handled carefully because it can mean the difference between a life in captivity and eventually returning to the wild.

Want to see the orangutans? Barbara sent me the links to some short videos:

You can also find out more about the project by going to this link: Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation.


While I try to be accurate in my note taking, there may be some errors either in my understanding or my presentation of the information from this talk. If you have questions, feel free to contact me or leave a comment.

Thanks to Barbara Heidenreich for allowing me to share her presentation and some video links. Thanks to the ORCA students and to the organizers of the Art and Science of Animal Training Conference for all their hard work on putting on this great event.

If you want to learn more about Barbara, you can visit her websites www.barbarasffat.com andwww.goodbirdinc.com.

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