Every now and then, meeting someone causes me to pause, to check in with my soul and make sure that I truly am living a life of purpose. Last night, Dr Francine Neogo was one of those people. At 85 years of age, tears rolled down her face as she described a life of working with orangutans in Indonesia. Her nature reminded me of Dr Jane Goodall – humble, shy and more than likely happier with her primates than people.
Dr Francine has never sought publicity. Indeed, Dr Jane is not a real fan of it either, except that it serves an incredibly important purpose. Which is why I am going to ask you one thing. Share this post. Spread it far and wide. Before I do that, let me try to convince you of why it is important.
Dr Francine met her first orangutan in 1963. It sat with a man, a chain around its neck, and reality hit. In an instance, she knew she had to work the rest of her life removing the chains and learning everything she could about them.
She is a French medical doctor but has dedicated her life to the protection and preservation of animals. She notes that each species requires 200 in order to survive. As we demolish our forests in pursuit of a ridiculous notion of palm oil, these beautiful creatures are facing the reality of extinction.
Watching her face tighten, releasing tears onto her lined face, my fingers gripped the pen that was flying across my paper, trying to capture every word she spoke. The facts flew from her lips but were encased in sadness. Orangutans live for 65 years and have a perfect memory. Every single minute of every day can be recalled. This is necessary for their survival in the jungle. A mother raises her baby alone, and as she does, she teaches it every single variety of flower, leaf and tree in the forest.
I shake my head at the knowledge held by these beautiful creatures, more like humans than beasts. And yet here we are, driving them off the planet in record numbers.
In Ache, Indonesia, the governor has just donated the zoo for repatriation of over 50 orangutan orphans currently in North Sumatra. But before they can be introduced to their new home, every single piece of fauna must be assessed for safety. These animals have been in captivity and have lost the bank of knowledge their forbearers held. In just a few short years, we have wiped out centuries of learning. Now, as humans, it is our responsibility to retrain and to protect.
Dr Francine spent six months living in a cage with 16 orangutans in Singapore. The dominant female held the key and would taunt her, not allowing her out unless she modified her behaviour submissively, almost begging for release. That female will never forgot Dr Francine. She will also have a memory of any trauma caused in her life.
As the butchers of Borneo knock down their homes, every orangutan ‘child’ is building a memory of violence and destruction. If we left a legacy like this for humans, would there be outrage? For a dominant species, we sure know how to trash and burn those who are literally far superior to us.
If I held the knowledge of every leaf and flower in a jungle as vast as those of Indonesia in my head, I would be lauded as a genius. These gentle creatures live in harmony with the land and judge each other not by intellect, but by the colour of your aura. Such a complex yet simple way of being, and we seem to hope that somehow, they will survive?
How much Dr Francine has learned from living with them may never be fully known, as she is focused on her work of creating safe homes for them, and bringing awareness of them to the rest of the planet. But at 85, she knows her time is running out.
Her curriculum vitae is impressive. But perhaps most impressive is that she developed a computer system used by the Smithsonian National Zoo to teach language to orangutans. She ran the world’s first orangutan language study, teaching an ape named Bulan sign language and spelling in a phonetic alphabet. She laughs. Mothers ask her how is it that she can teach an orangutan how to spell, but not their own child.
She tells the story of a man who changed a tyre in front of an inquisitive orangutan. As he turned away, the orangutan was huddled beside the car, replicating what he had just watched. You need to be careful what you say and do around orangutans!
It takes them just one month to learn a new language. And yet, despite their intellect, all they really want is to be loved.
And no matter what humans dish out, relentlessly bulldozing their homes, all they will ever respond to is love.
Dr Francine’s talk is too short. I want to learn more, ask questions, run over and give her a hug. Instead, we draw the raffle with a prize of Looking for Borneo, a book I published for author Mark Heyward, photographer David Metcalf and artist Khan Wilson, to the Rotary raffle. It is won by a Rotarian who promptly jumps up and gives it to the doctor as a gift.
Dr Francine smiles and hugs the book, another piece in the jigsaw of bringing awareness to the planet.
I do in fact head over to her, wondering why people like her keep crossing my path. Relentlessly sharing their passion for the planet. Earlier, another Rotarian had described her travels into Nepal to help save a village, following the earthquakes earlier this month. Bye Bye Plastic Bags teens had brought the plight of the village to the attention of their parents, following contact from a fan of theirs an hour outside Kalimantan. That’s another story for another day, but as I look into the aging eyes of Dr Francine, I feel her words. I feel her passion for the species that knows many languages but responds to only one.
That of love.
And I refocus back on my publishing business, on the service I offer to others.
Every now and then, you meet someone who should make you do this. This is the world knocking on the back of your eye lids, making certain you keep stepping in the right direction.
All I ask is that you share this post. Share the links to Noah and his Ark. Keep questioning what you purchase, where it comes from. Do not stand back and say, “Their country, their laws.” If you say that for the death penalty, you must also say it for the rape of the forests of Indonesia. You cannot buy into this both ways.
We are all connected.
And in truth, there really is only one language. Only one response.
And that is love.
You can help simply by sharing the post. The more awareness of Dr Francine’s work, which stands up next to that of Dr Jane Goodall, the more chance there is of help. You never know, one of the people you connect may well be the one that provides what is needed to help keep this work going.
Images taken from Noah and his Ark website.