Changing the World to Save the Orangutans

Journalist: Alyssa Crume | Editor: Amelia Kalagher | Photographer: Hanna Mendola

Hope Emigh is a Junior at Eckerd College who enjoys spending her free time researching the social behavior of orangutans. The following is an interview with Emigh ’18 on how she got involved in orangutan research, her experience as an orangutan researcher, and where she thinks this knowledge will take her after Eckerd.

Where are you from?

Grand Rapids, Michigan

How did you find Eckerd, and what brought you here?

I did a lot of college research and stumbled upon Eckerd. I was actually very interested in shark behavior research, and Eckerd looked like the place to be. I visited campus over my spring break Junior year, and as soon as I drove through the front gate, I made my decision.

What made you begin your research? 

My first week of freshman year, I emailed my professor, Lauren Highfill, who I heard was the person to talk to regarding all things animal behavior. I told her my interest in sharks, but I also realized how competitive the marine field was. I mentioned that I was also interested in primates, as I have been since I was a child, and she sent me a list of possible places to do internships or volunteering. I looked at several places, but Suncoast Primate Sanctuary caught my eye. I have been volunteering every week since September 14th of Freshman year. I fell in love with the animals and the work environment instantly. Eventually, I got moved up to Great Apes, where I met the most loving family, an orangutan mom and her two daughters. I immediately noticed their intelligence and wanted to work more closely with them.

Why Orangutans?

My great ape interest has always been focused on gorillas, but the Sanctuary didn’t have any at the time. Chimpanzees are intense, difficult, and constantly throw poop at you, so the orangutans seemed like the best option for a study, and I was already in love with their complex minds. You can just look into their eyes and know there is so much more to them. I am not trying to anthropomorphize them in any way, but I will reference some human like qualities I see in them for the sake of explaining their behavior better.

How did you conduct your research?

I decided to conduct a study attempting to measure the social intelligence of orangutans based on prosocial behavior. I replicated a study done on chimps and other small primates (V. Horner et al. 2011) that had been proven not statistically significant. Everyone looks to chimps for their intelligence because they are so closely related to humans, but I wanted to look at intelligence with a new definition. As humans, we automatically think that we are at the top of everything, but I could not disagree more. I see all living things as having equal individual value. Just because their intelligence isn't the same as ours, doesn't mean it's not there. Everything has value, and we need to stop looking at value as it pertains to human use. So, the overlooked, not well studied orangutans would help me prove that point. In summary, I wanted to prove that orangutans have some amount of social or emotional complexity that we haven't considered in animals yet, or at least not great apes.

Have you found any results from your research?

I have taught Ruby (one of the daughter orangutans) a fair amount of sign language so that she can communicate better with me. I have built relationships with Mama Jewel, Ruby, and Julie based on mutual respect and trust. I love these girls. I would do anything for them. Mama acts like a mom to me, and Julie and Ruby treat me like another sister. They are constantly playing jokes on me and messing around. Sometimes I get into arguments with them, and sometimes, when Julie is being a brat, Ruby stands up for me. This all became even more interesting after completing a semester internship at John Hopkins All Children's Hospital Autism Center. I got into this research mostly to put orangutans on people's radar and prove their importance, hopefully aiding in their conservation. However, after working closely with children and adolescents with ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder], I realized that if we could figure out what makes orangutans different socially, maybe it could lead to advances in social therapies for kids with ASD. I figured out very quickly that unless an animal serves a purpose in the human world, we don't really care if it goes extinct. So, maybe by connecting it back to people, it would help orangutan conservation.

What do you plan on doing with this research? 

I plan on publishing this research once I figure out how to go about the information observed. I want to pass this research off to other Eckerd students to study more orangutans at other facilities as well. I have already made efforts towards this. However, for me, I don't plan on doing this research for the extended future. I need to take what I have learned and use it to provide my new orangutan family with the best care they can get.

What do you plan on doing in the future?

I am going to change the world. I think most Eckerd students will. Just watch me though, I promise you I will change the world. I want to save the Great Apes, along with any other animal in need. People are destroying this world, and I am just trying to do anything I can to fix it. The great apes need to live. They are more valuable than any of us can imagine. That goes for all species, but I have to start somewhere. My life motto is, "Don't waste your time on anything that won't change the world", and I live that out every day. I'm that girl on campus that is constantly busy. I run around always doing something. I rehab animals at the sanctuary, help with Eckerd pets, take a bunch of classes, do research, work for Campus Activities, and do an insane amount of work just so that I can be ready for my future. It's almost like constant training for me, and I know I put too much on my plate. But every challenge I overcome now will only help me in the future. Saving the world isn't a job for the weak, but I also can't do it alone. I encourage all Eckerd students to take what they learn here and find a way to change the world in some small way, every single day. This career path is changing the world. It doesn't really pay, there are no days off or vacation days, and it is the most impractical career there is, but I will never give up. I hope that my research and how I live my life will inspire others to do the same. I sure could use the help. I am so far from perfect, I mess up astronomically, I am the definition of a hot mess, but the world doesn't need perfection. I just needs people that care.

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