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What's In Your Bag, Orangutan Style

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

By: Amy Barnes

Photographer: Kathryn Harrington


Shimmer, sparkle, objects that open and close, and other frivolous items we tuck into backpacks and handbags — often as we rush out the door or toss into them on the go — are an incredible curiosity for Louisville Zoo orangutan, Amber. Her seemingly discerning taste in objects and inquisitive nature delight and entertain guests on a daily basis. In fact, her fascination is now a viral phenomenon. From the opposite side of the glass, Amber is engaged in human behaviors — eager to learn more about what’s going on outside her habitat. She points and gestures to individuals in the crowd, beckoning people forward to discover more. “It warms our hearts to witness the world embracing Amber’s inquisitive nature and joining us in our mission of 'Bettering the Bond Between People and Our Planet.' Together, we're not just sharing a viral sensation, but also spreading awareness and love for the precious wildlife we are fortunate to have at the Louisville Zoo,” said Louisville Zoo Media Relations Manager Kyle Shepherd.

Amber came to the Zoo in 1996 from Como Park Zoo, along with her half-sibling, Teak. Known for her playful personality, Amber is also intrigued by babies, earrings, brightly colored fingernails, and accessories. Teak, much like his sister, is known for his intense stare and study of Zoo guests; in particular, their shoes.


“While some of our orangutans are shy, Amber is the opposite. She is always curious, engaging, and outgoing – a true extrovert. Amber keeps herself constantly busy, never sitting still for too long,” said Jill Katka, Assistant Curator for Louisville Zoo’s Islands and Gorilla Forest.

During your next trip to the Zoo, stop by to visit its latest new additions. These include a red panda, Sundara (referred to by staff as “Sunny D”), baby babirusa Rowdy, and a flamboyance of new Chilean flamingos — now bringing the flock’s total to 87 and making it the largest flamboyance of Chilean flamingos in North America.


The VOICE-TRIBUNE team recently visited Amber with a bag filled with our own objects: visit our voice-tribune.com Facebook page to see video footage of Amber in action.


Please Don’t Feed the Orangutans (or other Zoo animals)! While it’s natural human behavior to want to feed the orangutans and other animals during a Zoo visit, it is highly discouraged — and can be harmful to the animals’ health. Below, the Louisville Zoo provides insight into orangutan behaviors (particularly with regard to Amber), discusses orangutan health and diet, and offers a few pointers on safe ways to interact with Amber.


“Orangutans are intelligent and inquisitive. They are curious and interested in the world around them, and Amber has learned that if she points people may show her interesting things. We’re familiar with our pets learning to get things – a dog learns to get belly rubs by flopping on its back or a cat meows and runs towards the food bowl at feeding time. It’s no wonder that an orangutan could learn to point at pockets, bags, and purses to get people to show her what’s inside.”

“Unfortunately, people also keep snacks in their bags, and since Amber is amazing and personable it is no wonder that people want to give her something that she may enjoy. After all, a few fruit snacks couldn’t hurt, right? And popcorn and sodas and candy bars? Yikes! We love Amber and we want her to be healthy and live a long happy life. The natural diet for orangutans is very high in fiber and low in sugar, and in fact, much of the fruit that they eat is more similar to eggplant or cucumber in sugar content than the cultivated fruits that we grow. High fiber and low sugar are necessary to support healthy gut bacteria and to keep them from gaining excess weight, which can lead to health problems such as mobility and joint issues. We feed Amber a balanced diet because we love our orangutans and want them to be healthy! Amber regularly gets snacks as part of her enrichment, but we make sure that these snacks are healthy and only a small portion of her overall diet. It’s all about keeping it balanced! She gets many different types of food enrichment, for example, homemade popsicles – add a splash of juice and a few pieces of fruit to a container, add water to fill up the container, and freeze. A yummy treat that the orangutans love but is still healthy. She also likes fresh popcorn (no need for butter or salt), roasted veggies, and herbs and spices. The orangutans get quite a variety of food enrichment, but in small quantities, so that it provides variety and interest in their diet without compromising nutrition.”

“When we prepare and feed the orangutans, we wear gloves. Orangutans can catch human illnesses and diseases. If someone is sick and feeds some of their food to Amber it could make her sick too. Orangutans are very similar to us and can catch what we have, but they don’t always react exactly the same and sometimes can get very ill from human diseases. Something common like strep throat can be deadly to non-human primates.”

“We love it when guests interact with Amber and get to experience for themselves how cool orangutans really are. When you visit, show her neat things from your bag, or let her inspect your fingernails, but please don’t focus on showing her snacks. Amber can’t have every snack that all the Zoo guests have in their bags throughout the day and showing her something that she may want but can’t have isn’t kind. So if you are visiting the zoo and want to come say ‘hi’ to Amber, please do it in a way that keeps her healthy and happy and safe!”

Louisville Zoo is a part of Orangutan SAFE – Orangutan Saving Species from Extinction (SAFE) is a network of organizations and individuals that advocate for the protection of wild orangutans. For more information, visit www.azaorangutansafe.org. To learn more about Louisville Zoo and to plan a visit, go to www.louisvillezoo.org.


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