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Why Are the Orangutans So Depressed?
The Science has the answer!
“How have your orangutans been since I last saw them?” asked Dr. Elizabeth Doolittle, who looked like a Secretary Bird1 in human form: tall, thin, stiff, and stern, with her small face frozen in a frown of disapproval. She towered over Betty Boop, the young zoo employee whom she was questioning.
Betty Boop glanced occasionally at Dr. Doolittle’s chin but otherwise stared nervously at the floor. She very much preferred talking to animals rather than to people. After a brief pause, Betty replied, “The orangutans have been okay.”
“Just okay?” demanded the doctor, her shrill voice rising.
Betty shifted about nervously and, looking up at the chin, answered, “Well, I don’t know. I mean, your suggestion about putting higher doses of estrogen in their food was good. Since we did that, there has not been a single fight, and none of them have tried to escape their enclosure, like they used to, but —”
“But what?” interrupted Dr. Doolittle. She placed her right hand on her hip and thrust out her elbow like a bent bird wing.
“Well, now the males don’t do anything,” continued Betty. “They just sit around all day, staring into space, looking sad.”
Betty nodded. “Yes ma’am, looking real sad. Like, you look into their eyes, and there’s nothing, just this bottomless apathy.”
“I see.” Dr. Doolittle’s eyes narrowed, till only her pupils were visible.
Betty thought for a moment before adding, “It’s like they don’t care about life or anything —”
Elizabeth Doolittle suddenly raised the palm of her hand and held it an inch away from Betty’s face. “Young lady, I know what the word ‘apathy’ means! So the males are apathetic. What about the females?”
“Oh, the females just seem angry all the time, a whole lot angrier than they used to be. They don’t fight like the males used to, but they just scream at each other — and at the males.”
“You described the females as ‘angry,’” said the doctor, pointing her long, bony index finger and its long, fake fingernail accusingly at Betty. “Why did you choose to characterize them in that way? You said yourself that they have not been fighting.”
“But they have been screaming,” replied Betty. She glanced up at the doctor’s chin and added, “At each other. They scream at each other constantly.”
“What’s wrong with that?” asked the doctor. “What’s wrong with them expressing themselves finally, after being oppressed by the males for so long? Give them time, and the girls will really thrive. You’ll see.”
“I hope so.”
“I know so,” replied Dr. Doolittle, confidently. “You can’t expect them to attain perfect psychological health overnight. These females have inherited generational trauma from their mothers and grandmothers, and they have lived around male toxicity for their entire lives. It’s only normal that they should be angry. We should encourage that.”
“Ok, but what about the males?”
“What about the males?” asked the doctor.
“Well, they just sit around all day, not doing anything, just looking sad,” said Betty.
“Yes, you said that already.” The doctor leaned forward and stared down at Betty, like a Secretary Bird looking down at a baby mouse trying to hide in the grass.
Betty leaned back. “Well, it’s just that, the orangutans used to be one of the most popular exhibits at our zoo, but now, people just pass them by, and some folks have even complained.”
“Humph,” murmured Dr. Doolittle. “How many people, precisely?”
Betty shrugged. “I don’t know. A few.”
“How many people have complained personally, to you, about the orangutans since we resolved the behavioral problems that the males were having?”
Betty shook her head. “I don’t know. It’s not like I keep a list of the names and addresses of everyone who complains about something.”
“Unbelievable!” shrieked the doctor. “Why this attitude? I’m just asking a simple question, trying to better understand the situation, which you are not being at all clear about, and you get all defensive and snarky with me! I’m going to have to have a talk with your supervisor.”
“I’m sorry,” muttered Betty. “I don’t know how many. Maybe one or two people complained to me personally, but other staff have been hearing complaints too.”
“Well, I will talk to the other staff about this, but none of them have said anything to me about it. Apparently, you are the only one who believes there is a problem, but you are not able to give me specifics when I ask why you feel that way. I think the orangutans are fine. You disagree with me, but you are unable or unwilling to provide any specifics beyond very general hearsay. I want to know how many complaints you have heard, personally, and what precisely those complaints have been. Now.”
“Two,” answered Betty, hanging her head. “Two people complained to me, personally.”
“A moment ago, you told me ‘one or two,’ but now you know it was two?”
“And what, precisely, did those two people say about the orangutans that led you to characterize their remarks as ‘complaints?’”
Betty bit her lip and mumbled, “One was yesterday.”
“Speak up!” shrieked the doctor.
“One was yesterday,” repeated Betty. “This man said, ‘Oh, the orangutans aren’t active like they used to be.’”
“And what made you decide to characterize this man’s” — Dr. Doolittle paused, shook her head, and contorted her face as she said the word “man” again — “this man’s observation as a complaint?”
“Well, he seemed unhappy about it,” replied Betty.
“Oh, so you’re a mind-reader now?” demanded the doctor. “You know for a fact that he was unhappy because the orangutans were not as active as he remembered them being on previous visits? You know that for a fact?”
“No,” muttered Betty, with a sigh.
“I see.” The doctor’s frown turned briefly to a triumphant smirk before changing back into a frown. “And I suppose you don’t even remember what the first person you characterize as a ‘complainant’ said, but I suppose it was something equally trite?”
“Probably,” said Betty, inhaling deeply before adding, with sudden conviction, “But why can’t we try letting the orangutans outside sometimes? In their natural habitat, they get to climb trees. They get to explore. They get to see the sunlight and feel the dirt.”
“Humph!” snorted Dr. Doolittle. “There’s a reason that I am the director and you are an hourly-wage employee. Can you imagine the liability we would face if we let the orangutans roam free in the zoo?”
“But what if we did it after the zoo closed? Just for an hour a day or something?”
“Oh, just for an hour a day?” demanded the doctor. “That’s all? Just expose ourselves to the massive risk of ruinous lawsuits for just one hour a day? We cannot risk those things escaping, first of all! And second, we have to keep them safe! Do you have any idea how much those things cost?! We could replace you a whole lot more easily than we could replace them! A whole lot more easily! When it comes to the animals, safety first2 is our top priority!”
“But they’re so depressed!” cried Betty.
“Their brain chemistry is out of whack,” retorted the doctor. “That’s an easy fix. We just increase the dosages of their SSRI medication again, while also adding an NSRI to the mix.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Betty.
“My sister is an animal-talk therapist,” continued Dr. Doolittle. “I’ll hire her to come in and give them therapy for a few weeks. Orangutans have developed an oppressive, toxically masculine culture, and it is our job to liberate them from that, now that they are in our care and are no longer subject to the whims of Nature. The male orangutans simply need to learn to embrace a more healthy, more feminine manifestation of their socialization and sexuality.”
“Oh, and they’re not having sex anymore, either,” added Betty.
“That’s to be expected,” said the doctor. “We are still quite early in this process. This method has been applied to many other groups of primates at other zoos, and I can tell you that everything you’ve described is perfectly normal. The female orangutans eventually take on a more assertive and dominant role towards the males. They learn to explore the full spectrum of gender roles and identities that are now open to them. The males do too, but for them the process is more difficult, due to the problems with primate cultures and the unique pathologies that afflict those assigned the male gender at birth, which seems to be a condition shared by nearly all mammals, humans included. The good news, though, is that with sufficient dosages of SSRIs, NSRIs, and estrogen, the males become liberated from the limitations of these previously assigned gender roles, and they learn to develop their own authentic gender identities and sexual preferences. Many even express a desire to receive surgical assistance in bringing their bodies into harmony with their authentic gender. It is a glorious process.”
“But how do they breed, if they change genders?” asked Betty. “We already have trouble getting them to reproduce in captivity.”
“We can make new ones in a lab, now,” replied Dr. Doolittle, as she smiled for the first time that afternoon. “No more of that messy stuff getting apes to mate and dealing with all the disorderliness of pregnancy and childbirth and all that nonsense. Best of all, by making them in a lab, we can engineer them to be happy. That’s the final solution to all this silly depression these orangutans are having. The next generation of orangutans at this zoo will be happy to live in the cage and do nothing except smile and wave at all the people who come to see them. Don’t worry, we scientists have it all figured out.”
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A photo of a Secretary Bird that looks a lot like Dr. Elizabeth Doolittle: