Ask a zookeeper to compare the intelligence of the three best-known great apes, and this is what you’ll probably hear: If you leave a screwdriver in a cage, a chimpanzee will spot it at once, pick it up, wave it around, stab at the bars with it—in short, do everything but use it as a screwdriver—before losing interest in the thing and discarding it. A gorilla, on the other hand, will find the screwdriver only when he steps on it, and after realizing that the implement isn’t edible, will probably toss it aside. An orangutan, however, will notice the screwdriver immediately, but won’t let on that he’s seen it. Instead, the orang will play dumb until the keeper leaves for the evening, then use the screwdriver to dismantle his cage and head for the hills.

That may be exaggerating an orangutan’s ability to reason, but curators at the National Zoological Park think it’s time to find out for certain. After more than a year of planning, the zoo will soon begin experiments designed to gauge the mental processes by which the red apes learn. If all goes as planned, orangs and researchers will eventually exchange messages via computer terminals, and the public will be permitted to witness—even participate in—the study.

“Would you like an apple for lunch today, Indah?”

“Anything but that vile bok choy, please.”

Inviting the public to join a laboratory experiment involving primate cognition is unprecedented in American zoos, and brings with it unique difficulties.

“The problem is trying to exhibit something that’s invisible,” says Ben Beck, associate director of biological programs, and the mastermind behind the effort. “You can’t see thinking; it’s an abstract concept. You can show a beating heart and lungs in a model or video, but with thinking there’s nothing to show. It’s a tremendous challenge to exhibit it to the public.”

Zoo officials are now devising ways of meeting that challenge. Renovations are under way at the now-empty Monkey House—the site for these novel endeavors.

When the new laboratory—“Think Tank,” as it’s been named—is functional, zoo officials believe it will provide an ideal setting for researchers to better understand the way orangs learn. But they caution that the animals will not be on display for the public’s amusement.

“We won’t train them or force them into mechanistic demonstrations,” says Beck. “This isn’t a trick show. They’ll be given the opportunity to participate in research programs.”

In short, all of this is voluntary. If theorangs choose to participate, they’ll be introduced to three areas of research, including toolmaking and the use of language. Zoo biologist Rob Shumaker has devised a vocabulary of 80 symbols and pictograms to which the orangs will be slowly introduced. It is hoped that the animals will learn both the symbols and syntax, enabling them to fashion complete thoughts. That way, says Shumaker, the animals could actually make their wishes known to the keepers.

Much of this human/ape interaction will be accomplished by means of computer terminals. And, while the animals will be visible behind glass walls, closed-circuit cameras will also capture their image and project it onto overhead screens. That way, zoogoers can more easily follow the progression of the experiments.

Think Tank is expected to be completed by the spring of ’95, when the public will be invited to witness the experiments. Until then, the orangs will be gradually introduced to their new environment.

To accomplish this, zoo officials had toanswer a fundamental question: How would the animals be transported to Think Tank each day from their home at the Great Ape House? They certainly weren’t going to walk over, and keepers weren’t about to load them onto trucks.

No solution seemed viable until Shumaker dreamed up the Orangutan Transport System (OTS), which in spectacular fashion will carry the nine red apes from the Ape House to the new laboratory.

OTS, which resembles a ski lift, will be installed on 100 yards of meadow between the Ape House and the Monkey House. Eight 45-foot towers will be erected, one each in the enclosed yards of the Ape and Monkey Houses, the other six in the Great Meadow. Vinyl-covered cables will be strung between the towers, providing the orangs with the means to swing from one house to the other. For the spectators below, the view of apes swinging across open terrain should be riveting. Zoogoers will be free to walk directly under the cables, though freedom has risks: in this case, being urinated on, spit at, or pelted with orange peels. But Shumaker is confident the two species will learn to coexist.

“Historically, the architecture of ape houses has always fostered the image that we had to be protected from the apes,” says Shumaker. “I think that really has supported an inappropriate perception of apes. The design of the OTS, however, allows the people and the orangs to fairly share the space, and it’s balanced. The people move in the space that’s comfortable for them, and so do the orangs. It’s more natural, and it’s more honest.”

The OTS towers will be installed in the next few weeks, and the system should be ready for the orangs’ use by the end of the year. The animals will have immediate access to the towers, but they won’t be trained to use the transport system or even encouraged to do so.

As a result, zoo officials are aware that they’ve gone out on a limb. Even as they prepare the sophisticated transit system, they contemplate the horrible possibility that the orangs will simply ignore this huge new swing-set. Or that the orangs will climb the first tower, plant themselves on its platform—and stay there.

Or what if the orangs find their way off the towers and into the meadow? Beck says that’s unlikely. The middlesix towers will be electrified, preventing the animals from climbing down (and humans from climbing up). And, he adds, the apes will feel the presence of a “psychological cage—an enclosure defined by the psychological propensities of the species. Forty-five feet is too far to drop, and they’re too agile to fall.”

That agility is due in part to the apes’ prodigious strength. Orangs have incredibly long arms and lengthy, curved fingers that work like claws. A full-grown male weighs about 165 pounds, and its strength has been calculated to be more than four times that of his human counterpart; by comparison, a grown female orang weighs about 82 pounds but is generally more than three times stronger than a well-conditioned young human male. Orangs are so strong that they’ve been known to loosen machine-driven bolts, making the design of their cages an exercise in caution. At the zoo’s Ape House, where I work as a volunteer, a truck tire that’s a struggle to turn upright is easily lifted with one hand by young female orangs. Not long ago, an elder female grabbed a shovel and snapped the thick wooden handle as if it were a pencil.

If the orangs use this system of ropes and towers to swing across the Great Meadow, uninitiated zoogoers will see little more than a bunch of similar long-armed, hairy forms. You can’t tell the players without a program.

So here’s an abbreviated one: The largest and strongest member of NZP’s orangutan troupe—and the animal most easily identified—is a 27-year-old male nicknamed Junior. Junior has long, shaggy hair and floppy cheek pads, and, when he sweeps along, resembles Cousin It on The Addams Family.

Father to five of the zoo’s orangs, Junior rules the clan. As such, he could conceivably cause a bottleneck by hogging one of the rest platforms and refusing to let the other animals pass. But the towers were designed with two sets of cables, providing an alternate route around Junior or anyone else hoping to stall traffic.

If any one of the orangs is capable of sneaking away from the transit system, it’s 17-year-old Bonnie, the group’s largest female and undoubtedly its smartest family member. Bonnie once found a way out of the “escape proof” orangutan yard and took off with her son, Kiko, in tow—only to be diverted by a zoogoer’s offer of soda and Kentucky Fried Chicken. When the keepers were finally alerted that Bonnie and son were on the lam, they found the fugitives happily pulling drumsticks from the visitor’s cooler. If Bonnie figures out how to escape from the high wires, keepers bet she’ll do it by secretly fashioning something like an ultralight glider.

Bonnie is the smartest of the troupe, but she has competition: The animals’ intelligence is nearly as legendary as their strength. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, it was widely believed that the orangutan—Malay for “person of the forest”—was the missing link between monkeys and humans. In an 1830 account of orangutan behavior, a Dutch researcher claimed to see an orang sit down to eat and, after unfolding his napkin and pouring his own wine, toast his human companions. On the island of Java, the natives believed that orangs could speak but refused to do so for fear of being made to work.

Many biologists and natural historians now believe the missing-link theory to be unfounded, but as attentive zoogoers will learn, the orangs’ intelligence is indisputable. Iris, the 6-year-old daughter of Junior, fashions a hammock out of a burlap bag, then lounges in the corner of her cage. Tucker, a 10-year old male, apparently knows a serious photog rapher when he sees one, because he’ll only pose behind the glass wall of his cage for zoogoers toting the best camera equipment.

All the orangs will have equal access to both the OTS and Think Tank, but two probably won’t be admitted to the language classes. Twenty-six-year-old Pensi and her son, Chang Jr., will likely be sent to other zoos for breeding purposes (their gene pool is not widely represented in American zoos), and Shumaker thinks it would be unfair to teach them language, then send them to a place where no one could understand them.

Of course, says Beck, “if we get to the point where we have teleconferences, that may change.”

Under this scenario, apes could actually communicate with one another via computer conferencing. Shumaker, for one, believes NZP’s orangs could use their language skills to talk with apes in other states and on other continents. When that happens, the Orang Conference on the Internet will undoubtedly be filled with instructions about the most effective use of the screwdriver.