Great Enrichment for a Great Ape

Posted February 18, 2021 by Angela Hatke

Henry, the 30-year-old Sumatran orangutan that has lived at the Cincinnati Zoo since 2011, is a great ape (in every way)!

Orangutan means “person of the forest” and is a fitting name for a primate that is happy to spend its day hanging out in the treetops. The only truly arboreal ape, the orangutan is also the largest tree-dwelling animal!

All About Henry!

He weighs 190 pounds and his favorite foods are pineapple, oranges and eggs. As a large animal with a hefty appetite for fruit, the red ape’s survival requires the protection of large areas of forested habitat.

  • Habitat: Tropical rainforest
  • Diet: Fruit, shoots, bark, insects, vines, bird eggs, and small vertebrates
  • Risk Status: Species at Risk (IUCN—Critically endangered)

Henry has remarkable hair – and it serves a number of purposes! Primarily it’s used as a raincoat. It’s thicker than our hair and has an oil layer so rainwater flows over it. It also works as a sunscreen. The sun can’t reach his skin because of his hair! His hair also protects him from thorns and bugs. His cheek pads help amplify his call and work just like when you cup your hands around your mouth to project your sound further. In the wild, his territory is defined by how far his long call goes. If you can hear his long call, you are in his territory.

Orangutans are thinkers and problem solvers. They are known to sit and think and don’t act right away. While the other great ape species like gorillas are usually found in groups, orangutans tend to be more solitary. Henry sometimes hangs out with the white-handed gibbons but for the most part, he prefers to be alone. Orangutans are highly intelligent and are able to fashion tools, solve puzzles, and operate computers. Because they are so smart, it’s important for his care team to provide plenty of enrichment to their lives.

Enrichment is an important part of the daily care we provide for our animals.  Enrichment is anything the zookeepers add to the animals’ environments to stimulate their senses and elicit natural behaviors such as foraging, exploration, hunting, problem-solving, and even play. Each species’ individual needs are considered when designing enrichment activities. Our keepers use enrichment to keep animals healthy by encouraging physical activity and mental stimulation.  Some of the ways our animals are enriched include environmental, social, training, environmental enrichment devices, sensory and novel food.

For Henry, his care team focuses on enriching these senses:

Manipulation (Touch)

Example: puzzle feeders. In this type of enrichment, Henry has to physically manipulate an object to mentally and physically challenge his mind


Sensory enrichment allows animals the opportunity to use their senses, presenting them with new items to smell, touch, see and hear. Many times keepers will spray perfumes or spread spices in the exhibit, thus encouraging the animals to use their noses to explore. Other enrichments for the senses include playing various nature sounds, music, using different lights, or misting the animals to create a rain shower.


Taste/novel food is a type of enrichment used least with Henry. In the video you see him getting mixed nuts. That snack is not a part of his core diet. However, the Cincinnati Zoo has an entire department devoted to preparing food for all of the animals. Different types of foods are added to the animals’ diets to keep things interesting. For our carnivores, this may mean that they get larger items such as bones, or whole prey items. Other animals may get a wide variety of fruits or vegetables. Many animals also enjoy munching on freshly cut browse, a tree branch with the leaves still attached.  They can spend a lot of time pulling off the leaves to eat, just as they would in the wild.


Henry interacts with keepers and the gibbons that share his outside space. The Cincinnati Zoo knows how important Social Groupings for some species can be.  Sometimes the social needs of our animals can be met by the keeper staff, while other times it can be met from one species to another, such as Henry and the gibbons.

This also includes Training (Operant Conditioning). Interactions between the keepers and the animals through training are hugely enriching. Not only for the animals but also for their keepers too! Training provides the animals with opportunities to learn and problem solve which is important for Henry because he is so smart! Training also allows keepers to get a good look at their animals to ensure they are in good health and body condition. Some of our animals are even trained to allow the vets to examine them, draw blood, give vaccines, or perform ultrasounds. By doing this, we not only enrich the animals but also make sure they are in optimal health in a stress-free way.


This type of enrichment can be achieved in a few ways! In the video above, you can see Henry get a block of snow, which changes his environment by bringing something from the outside, inside! We strive to meet the animals’ needs by providing an enriching environment every time we design a habitat.  At times we will also change parts of their habitats to provide new opportunities to explore such as including new vines, adding new plants, rocks, and stumps, or even new types of surfaces that can be brought in or added to enclosures.

Saving Orangutans – Sustainable palm oil

Sumatran orangutans do have predators, but because they are usually up in the treetops, it is hard for larger predators to get to them. Leopards and snakes might try to get them, but naturally athletic and arboreal, orangutans can move quickly through the trees and can be hard to catch. Unfortunately, humans are one of their biggest threats in the wild due to the illegal pet trade and deforestation. Like any wild animal, critically endangered orangutans make horrible pets. They’re strong, intelligent, always better to see from a distance.

There is hope! You can help save orangutans by buying products made with sustainable palm oil. By supporting companies that use sustainable palm oil, you’re helping protect the natural habitat of orangutans and many other species that call the rainforest home.

Learn more about sustainable palm oil.

If you’d like to help out with more great ape conservation, read more about recycling your cell phone to help save animals like gorillas and their habitat.