New orangutan center at Indianapolis Zoo boasts unusual bond


When the International Orangutan Center opens at the Indianapolis Zoo on Saturday, you'll see a special team working together.

Azy is a big, handsome guy with long red hair. We should also mention that he's an orangutan. Azy is also one of Rob Shumaker's oldest friends, and they've learned a lot from each other over the past three decades.

"I started with Azy when I was a volunteer at the National Zoo in high school," said Shumaker.

Azy was just a kid, and the future primatologist Rob Shumaker was not much older.

"Boy, he was mischievous when he was that age," said Shumaker.

Thirty years later, he still is. Azy stuck his chewing gum on the window as Shumaker spoke with WTHR, making all of us laugh.

"One of the really remarkable things with Azy is that we've been able to maintain a relationship over so long. It's inevitable we know each other really well, we just really like each other," said Shumaker.

The two aren't just friends. They've been research partners since 1994. Shumaker has taught Azy to use symbols on a computer screen to identify things like food and cups.

"He has an accumulation of knowledge over time that no other orangutan has," said Shumaker.

It's not just what Azy can do on the computer. It's his awareness of self and everything around him. Shumaker says there have been times he's looking for someone "and I'll say where is so and so and I don't know where they are and he'll look down the hall of where they are or around the corner and I'll look and there they are."

Still, touching hands through a narrow opening is only physical contact the two have.

"I don't think he would intentionally hurt me," explained Shumaker, but added that Azy is incredibly strong, even being playful.

"We're really fragile and I'm not sure he'd know how gentle he'd have to be to work with us one-on-one," Shumaker said.

Still, these windows haven't been a barrier to their lifelong friendship.

"I think I've learned from Azy what are the very best things about orangutans and I hope he would say he's learned some good things about humans being around me," he said.

Ape Week
- Meet all the residents of the new orangutan center, and watch WTHR's behind-the-scenes stories and video