We've failed orangutan Rusti
By David Shapiro
When my grandson Corwin and I visited the Honolulu Zoo a few weeks ago, we passed the cage of our friend Rusti the orangutan and were surprised to see him staring out at us.
The last several times we'd been to the zoo, a sign on Rusti's cage said he was away being crate-trained for his transfer to a sanctuary in Florida.
We assumed he was long gone. How long did he have to practice tight confinement before they shipped him out?
We got our answer last week when zoo officials told the City Council that Rusti won't be going to Florida after all. Kualoa Ranch has offered to host the 23-year-old orangutan in its small private zoo to keep him in Hawai'i.
We greeted this news with mixed feelings happy that we would be able to continue visiting Rusti, but worried about what kind of life he would have at the unaccredited Kualoa facility with its motley assortment of ranch animals spiced by a few exotic creatures.
I'm not one of those animal activists who think furry beasts should be accorded the same rights as people. I have no philosophical objection to holding animals in captivity for the education and amusement of human children and adults.
But if we're going to do so, we have an ethical obligation to see that the animals we keep are treated at all times with decency and respect. We've failed to meet this burden with poor Rusti.
This was clear from the unhappy look on his face when we last saw him in his cage, listless and forlorn after traumatic weeks of crating and sedating.
Rusti's life has been as hard-luck a tale as you'll ever hear. Abandoned by abusive parents. Held captive for years in gulag-like conditions in a roadside zoo on the Mainland. Kept "temporarily" for five years in a cramped enclosure at the Honolulu Zoo while a new orangutan reserve failed to materialize on the Big Island.
When the proposed sanctuary on state-owned land in Hilo's Pana'ewa rainforest fell through, the Orangutan Foundation International made plans to move Rusti to the Center for Orangutan and Chimpanzee Conservation in Florida.
But the group gladly took up Kualoa Ranch on its offer to provide land for the orangutan reserve once planned for Pana'ewa, sparing Rusti the dangers inherent in tranquilizing great apes and moving them long distances.
Rusti could take up residency at Kualoa within a month if the state Board of Agriculture approves.
The Orangutan Foundation promises to build a state-of-the-art facility at Kualoa that eventually will house Rusti and others of his species in open air on several acres of wooded land.
The sanctuary will be used to teach schoolchildren and tourists about the orangutan's struggle against extinction in the wild.
The worry is that while the new facility is being built with no firm timetable, Rusti will be kept at Kualoa in a steel and concrete enclosure even smaller than his cage at Honolulu Zoo, which will be converted to an aviary for pint-sized parrots.
Despite the concern and good wishes we've heaped on Rusti, we haven't done well by him. Our obligation now is to make it a priority to get Rusti into proper housing with proper company sooner rather than later.
After being jerked around so unkindly for more than two decades, he's about halfway through the average lifespan of a captive orangutan. Decency dictates that we provide Rusti a more rewarding ride through the second half of his life.
David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.