Rob Shumaker, Zoo President

When the primate expert swings by the International Orangutan Center, all the animals go ape.

July 2018Add a comment

Of course the orangutans at the Indianapolis Zoo recognize Rob Shumaker. He has been their teacher for years. He rewards them with snacks when they show off things they’ve learned. Like any good friend, the apes worry when “Dr. Rob” cuts himself shaving. “That’s a huge deal for the ones that really like you,” says the 54-year-old zoo president. “They’re very concerned. What the heck is that? They want to reach out and touch it. Make sure it’s okay.”

A native of Washington, D.C., Shumaker worked for 20 years at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and seven years at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa before moving to Indy. “I knew as a kid that all I ever really wanted to do was work at a zoo,” he says. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate at George Mason University, and has published three books on animals.

“He’s great to work with, very funny,” says Chris Martin, a research scientist who also studies primates. “He’s knowledgeable about animals in general, and with orangutans, he’s one of the leading experts in the world.”

Tucked in the administration building, Shumaker’s office is decorated with two giant portraits of orangutans and his daughter’s animal artwork. While much of his day is spent attending to zoo business—strategic planning, problem solving, fundraising—his public demos with the orangutans provide a welcome chance to get out into the zoo.

One autumn morning, Rocky swung into the learning center on a fire hose and set up a box in front of the computer screen. The exuberant adolescent—a 150-pound orangutan with long fingers and wild red hair—nailed the first exercise, both recognizing the apple photograph and picking out an abstract symbol representing an apple from among 28 other images. But Rocky struggled with “banana,” and couldn’t sequence the numerals 1 and 2. Understandable. It was ZooBoo, and the Halloween costumes were distracting.

“I definitely don’t want to end on a wrong answer,” Shumaker said, circling back to apple. “You got it. Good. Good.”

What have orangutans taught Shumaker? Tons. But one insight is paramount: Not all orangutans are the same. Some female apes love babies. Others couldn’t care less. Some are loners. Others, more social. “There is such remarkable individual variation that we have to acknowledge and appreciate it,” Shumaker says. “The range of skills and interests and personalities is staggering.”

The orangutan demo is popular at the zoo in part, Shumaker concedes, because people like animals that act human, especially if they’re cute. “Snakes are spectacular,” he says. “Fish are incredible. But it’s sometimes harder to get people to care about those species because they are so different from us.”

If people fall in love with orangutans, however, they may donate to conservation causes or stop buying products made from palm oil, the single biggest threat to the Southeast Asian rainforest, the orangutan’s natural habitat. Slowing deforestation will preserve the biodiversity of all living things.

The Indianapolis Zoo helps in three ways, Shumaker says. It exposes its 1.2 million annual visitors to the wonders of the animal world; donates to conservation initiatives; and awards the Indianapolis Prize, a biennial gift of $250,000, to a leader in the crusade to save endangered species.

Every day is different at the zoo. Some days are miraculous. Shumaker has seen two elephants being born. Newborns shoot out fast, stand, and walk around, but they step on their own floppy trunks. He loves watching the free-flight macaws, and is thrilled about the zoo’s new addition: long-tailed macaques, monkeys that can swim and dive.

As for his research on the cognitive abilities of apes, Shumaker doesn’t mind if his pupils have an off day. This is science, not a circus. He never chastises them. “We don’t ever tell the animals what to do,” he says. “We ask them, but it’s always their choice.”

Humility is essential when building positive relationships with orangutans or any animal. “You are not in charge,” he says. “You are not superior.”

Does Shumaker take this approach with his own two children?

“I try. I try. I try.”

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