Katai and Sansão: orangutans in captivity in Brazil
posted in 24 Apr 2024
Caption: Katai and Sansão

The female orangutan Katai is the only resident of her species in a sanctuary in Brazil. She was born in February 1985 in a zoo in Germany and is a Sumatran/Borneo hybrid. She has never known any life other than captivity and had the misfortune of losing her partner at the German zoo.

When she was 25, in 2010, it was finally possible to negotiate her transfer to the Great Apes Sanctuary of Paraná, where she lives very well to this day. The only thing missing is a companion, and relocating an orangutan who will enjoy better living conditions at the sanctuary would be a perfect solution for both animals.

That’s where the story of male orangutan Sansão comes in. He has been living alone at São Paulo Zoo since 2017. In August 2020, a lawsuit filed by the NGO “Animals Matter” asked for Sansão’s transfer to the sanctuary affiliated with GAP Project, which is still open to receiving Sansão and is committed to integrating him with Katai, after a period of quarantine and adaptation and following all the necessary technical protocols.

Unfortunately, the process is moving at a very slow pace in the São Paulo Court of Justice, and activists are asking the court why it is taking so long. The last procedural movement was in October 2023, when the São Paulo Public Prosecutor’s Office issued an opinion requesting expert evidence of Sansão’s welfare conditions – even though the process already exposes his situation and justifies his transfer to the sanctuary.

A little bit of Katai and Sansão’s histories

In 2007, Sansão was donated to the São Paulo Zoological Park Foundation by the Maia Zoo, a city in the metropolitan area of Porto, Portugal.  Not much is known about the circumstances of the donation, but consulting official zoo publications, it is estimated that in 2024 Sansão will be 40 years old – practically the same age as Katai.

According to the lawsuit, based on information from videos found on the internet recently, and also based on the number of animals published on the zoo’s official channels, Sansão lived in an enclosure in the company of Shinta, a female orangutan who was 23 in 2017, and Julia, a female white-handed gibbon who was 11 at the time. 

According to the lawsuit, the whereabouts of Shinta and Julia have been uncertain since 2017, since they are no longer seen in Sansão’s enclosure and there is no information in the zoo’s official publications. The fact is that Sansão has been alone and isolated in his enclosure for seven years.

As for Katai, it is known that she was born in a zoo in Germany in 1985, but there is no more detailed information on the location of this zoo or other circumstances surrounding her captivity. It is known that when she was an adult and found herself alone in the German zoo, her transfer to the Brasília zoo was negotiated, where she spent a period of time before finally being relocated to the Sanctuary in Paraná  in 2010.

When she arrived at the sanctuary, Katai seemed very frightened and suspicious. Cleaning her enclosure was practically impossible because she refused to enter the handling area. It was clear that she had a phobia of being enclosed in a restricted area. It was a trauma that seemed irreversible at the time. 

With a lot of patience and dedication, Katai learned to trust her caregivers. Today, she exhibits self-confidence, walking around her enclosure and interacting with her spider monkey neighbors. She goes quietly into her room so that the caretakers can safely clean her outdoor enclosure. In addition, enrichment techniques have been introduced to break up the monotony of captivity and stimulate her movement.

Why Sansão should be transferred and integrated with Katai

To begin with, because they both live alone today and will benefit greatly from each other’s company, since they have already had the opportunity to live with others of their species. In other words, the two of them together will have a much better quality of life in captivity.

In addition, at the sanctuary, Sansão will be spared the routine of visitation imposed at the zoo, which imposes restrictions on access to open areas depending on the time of day and exposes the animal to uncomfortable situations of being displayed as a product/object.

The enclosure at the Anami Institute/Paraná Sanctuary where Katai lives and to which Sansão would be sent differs substantially from the enclosure at the São Paulo zoo. It was built specifically for the orangutan species. 

There are 352 square meters of outdoor area, 12 meters high and completely covered, given that these animals in the wild have the habit of living most of the time in the treetops. To replicate this feeling, there are 3 floors of wooden platforms connected to each other and accessed by 2 wooden stairs, a structure that does not exist in the São Paulo zoo. 

There are also two trees and several ropes for playing and enriching the environment. The outside area is all surrounded by sturdy iron railings that allow visual and vocal interaction with the outside environment, and has modular metal plates that can be put up and taken down to mitigate the cold at lower temperatures. The floor of the outdoor area is partly grass and partly sand, and there is also a swimming pool. 

In addition to the outside area, there is also a bedroom for relaxing. The result is that after 14 years, Katai interacts with all the elements and structures in the enclosure and does not show stereotyped behaviors indicative of stress. On the other hand, Sansão shows recurring stereotypical behaviors, which are interpreted by scientific literature as substantially indicative of stress. 

But aren’t orangutans solitary beings?

In fact, wild orangutans are described as semi-solitary animals. They spend most of their time alone, having occasional encounters with other individuals to explore food sources and for reproductive purposes. Females accompany their young on average for the first 7 years of their lives.

Although orangutans in the wild maintain a social distance in terms of physical interactions, this is by no means a total isolation of individuals. In natural conditions, the orangutan maintains constant vocal communication, for example, allowing a certain amount of spatial coordination, with permanent control of the position of the individuals. 

It is also worth highlighting a recent successful case of integration and improved welfare for two orangutans in captivity: Sandra and Jethro, at the Center for Great Apes Sanctuary, in the United States.

After an unprecedented lawsuit at the time, in which Sandra was considered a non-human person and subject of rights, the Argentine courts ordered her rescue from the Buenos Aires zoo, where she had been living alone in a concrete cage for many years. 

In 2019, Sandra was transferred to the North American sanctuary, where she underwent a process of re-socialization. A few months after her arrival, she made physical contact with the orangutan Jethro, the sanctuary’s oldest resident. Sandra now follows Jethro along the aerial trails, sits and plays right next to him, nests near him at night and often spins around in front of him to get his attention and flirt. 

By Jaqueline B. Ramos