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We are sitting on a bench in the monkey house, smoking a cigarette with the zookeeper. It is 9:15 am - one orangutan yawns, another dozes in a hammock, and another hangs from a rope (a vine substitute), there are eleven of them all together. A couple of big ones, a couple of smaller ones, and a juvenile. This youth was watching me. In between us is orangutan-proof glass, a fence and five meters.


“Is there anything else we need to know before we go in?”, I ask the keeper.


“No” she says. “just stay calm”.

The keeper tried to get him off me, but the juvenile monkey wouldn’t give up.


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He was the first one to approach me as we entered the enclosure, and the first thing he did was make a grab for my right ear. He didn’t manage to snatch the hearing aid, I was a fraction of a second faster than him. Then, smack, his tongue was in my earhole.


What does it feel like, an orangutan’s tongue? In your ear? Not unpleasant. Like wet leather, a cloth for cleaning windscreens with.

I had already emptied my pockets and removed my necklace. Wristwatch, belt, shoelaces - everything an orangutan could steal - lay beside me. What about my hearing aid? I took it out, then thought better of it and put it back in my ear. The right ear. All the while the young orangutan was watching me.

Five and seven years old, and they liked me. One of them clambered up my leg and the other around my chest.

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The keeper tried to get him off me, but the juvenile monkey wouldn’t give up. Aggression or playfulness?


Aggression. The keeper had to put him in the neighbouring enclosure, along with the other bigger monkey, then we were alone with the smaller ones.

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They swiftly searched all my pockets, where they found nothing. As the orang hanging onto my leg discovered that I’d even removed my shoe laces, he began drumming on my shoes with his fists. Not threateningly, it didn’t hurt, rather rhythmically, musical. I don’t know why he was doing it. The other one kissed me.

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Hard to say. Even for the zookeeper. That they are so direct. That they interact so closely. That they don't accept any distance when they want to get to know someone. That they immediately implement every feeling with their muscles. That their eyes are wells of curiosity. They are some of the most human-like great apes around. Roughly 90 percent of their genes are identical to ours, they have the same number of ribs and vertebrae and almost the same blood. They become sexually mature at the same age, and they carry their young for nine months. Of all the animals on this planet, they are the closest to us, and I think that's what makes them so fascinating. We recognize each other. We recognize the human being in the monkey, they recognize the monkey in the human being.

No, that’s wrong. It wasn’t a kiss, he wanted to share food with me.


What did I learn from the orangutans?


That half an hour with the orangutans had made me a bit thoughtful. And a bit naked. They had pulled my trousers down to my knees, those lovely little things, and completely unbuttoned my shirt. That was an exciting morning at Hagenbeck's.

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Translator Artemis Meereis


Nadia Ratti & Patrick Alfter

Many thanks to 

Wolfgang Neumann / Solibro Verlag

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Portrait and reportage photographer

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