Through the inch-thick iron bars, she reached her hand out to me. It was a huge leathery hand. I looked into her eyes, more than a little afraid. Her hazel brown eyes looked straight into mine. A full minute passed. This large orangutan and I, looking into each other’s eyes. She held my gaze throughout, unwavering. Twice she blinked, as did I.
I was not sure what to make of her eyes. They looked so human. The pupils were the same, the white of the eyes darker. The eyelids were the same, and she had eyebrows too. I thought to myself, if I had this staring match with someone else, one of us would surely have looked away by now. Looking directly at someone’s eyes makes us uncomfortable. She didn’t seem uncomfortable at all. She just looked at me.
Two minutes later, I broke the eye contact. I looked away, looked down at her hand, still extended towards me, palm upwards. It looked like an offer. It said to me “take my hand”. I looked back at her, and decided there was no fear in her eyes. There was nothing I could interpret as aggression.
I looked back down at her hand. It was enormous. Each finger was twice the size of mine. From base to the tip of her finger, her palm was about 10 inches! Her palm was a whole latticework of lines, much more than mine. I guess a palm reader would have read ten life-stories from her palm, or given up his profession entirely. It was a velvety black in colour, a rather attractive picture framed with long wiry red hair growing from the back of her hand. I wanted to take her hand.
I contemplated these bars between us. I couldn’t imagine being this close to the 2nd largest ape in the world (after the gorilla) without these bars. What’s wrong with this contemplation, I ask? Is it because I am a civilised human, and she’s an uncivilised wild animal? She can’t harm me from behind those bars, so I am brave. Or, is it I am weak, and she is strong? We’ve about the same weight, but look at the size of her hands! She’ll kill me if it were not for these bars. My race’s only defence against her is its brains, and the bars we can build to cage her. And yet, look at her hands and I am amazed at how much alike we are.
I summon up courage… a lot of it, reach out and take her hand. Immediately her fingers wrap themselves around mine, just the way one would shake someone’s hand. My heart was racing. The great red ape held my hand gently, but firmly. She didn’t squeeze, she didn’t twist. She just held my hand in a warm embrace. I looked up into her eyes, and smiled. I just couldn’t help it, my heart was thumping with excitement and joy. It was the best feeling ever! I was grinning from cheek to cheek!
It felt like reaching my hand out to a child, and the child taking my hand. I grasp the child’s tiny hand, gentle, lovingly, reassuringly. The child looks up at me and smiles. My whole heart constricts, and a sensation of joy and pleasure washes through my whole body. That little act of reaching out to a child and receiving a smile is one of the most rewarding experiences people can feel. Except, mine was the tiny hand.
She and I held hands for about 30 minutes. Just sitting there, on either side of those strong, thick, iron bars. Holding hands. Looking at each other. In those minutes, a thousand thoughts raced through my mind. I knew then that this moment was a connection I would treasure for the rest of my life. I didn’t feel the need for those bars. I didn’t want to think about what my race was doing to her race. I didn’t want to know what circumstances lead to her being in this cage. Instead, I wanted to know how similar we were? What does she think of? Does she know she is a captive animal, sentenced to a life of waiting for a meal. Is she afraid of me? Does she like me?
Our connected hands answered many of those questions, but also asked a whole lot more questions. I ran my fingers through her hairy back of her hands. I stroked her fur on her arms. I caressed her soft skin on the palm of her hand. I felt hard patches of skin on her finger joints… just like my hand! I examined her finger nails, and thought… she needs a manicure!
I finally let her hand go, and she did too. We looked at each other again, and I searched for a smile in her eyes… just like my big smile on my face for the last 30 minutes. I found none. Maybe orangutans don’t smile? Maybe they have nothing to smile about? I turned and walked back to my car. As I walked, I started to stride faster. My heart started to pound. I felt a rising in my throat. I felt tears starting to roll down my cheeks. I got into my car, and sat there. I was sobbing, crying buckets of tears! I sat there another 30 minutes before driving home.