May 8 2012 09:32 PM

Aging ape still charming visitors at the San Diego Zoo

Janey is the greatest of apes.
Photo by Dave Maass

The artist doesn’t flinch when a toddler presses a finger to further smudge the already well-smeared glass. Instead, the artist pops a little green seed in and out of her lips on the other side of the panel, playfully, before setting her head in her hands like Rodin’s thinker.

The artist holds the pose, then strikes a few new ones, as tourists reach out with cameras and camera phones attempting, mostly without success, to capture her essence through the reflection of their own brightly patterned blouses. The artist humors them, because she’s older than probably 90 percent of her visitors.

The artist’s name is Janey, and she’s a 50-year-old orangutan, and even though her legs and feet are slowed by arthritis and her black skin shows through her bald shoulders, she still knows she’s special. She’s the oldest at the San Diego Zoo, the sole Bornean and the only one in the enclosure that will actually use—and not snap and splinter—paint brushes when she slathers paint on a canvas.

Orangutans in human care can live into their late 50s. Janey is as full of life as Betty White.

“She always has that mentality of, like, ‘I may be the oldest one in the room, but I’m full of spitfire,’” keeper Tanya Howard says. “She still has that, but she’s a very sweet, gentle animal.”

Any portrait of the artist as a young primate must necessarily be filled with tragedy. Times were different in 1962. Kidnapping orangutans was commonplace in the rain forests of Borneo, where a mother would be killed just to rip the infant from her long, powerful arms. Janey was kept by private owners in England, about whom little is known except that they taught her to smoke tobacco, until she was acquired by the zoo in 1984. She gave birth to two females in London, but she couldn’t be a good mother because she didn’t learn how to be one, having hardly known her own mother.

But she celebrated a happy 50th. The first to enter the enclosure each morning, she discovered cupcakes and toys just for her. She figured it out immediately, Howard says.

“She’s such an old animal that she knows everything. She’s seen it all; she’s been through it all,” Howard says. “She knows what’s expected of her. She’s willing to do it, which is an added bonus, because they are so smart and they are so strong that you can’t make an orangutan do what they don’t want to do. When you first meet her, she’s the one you can learn off of because she’s just, like, ‘OK. Let me tell you what you’re supposed to do.’ And if you do something wrong, she looks at you like, ‘No we’re doing this right now.’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, OK.’”

In the wild, orangutans aren’t social, choosing to live solitary, arboreal lives that they can’t in a zoo setting. Instead, Janey spends some moments alone in a special spot out of sight, then moves to the edge of the enclosure to bask in the sun on the moat’s precipice, her so-very-human hands shading her eyes. Later, she contemplates using a stick to dig for a flavored sauce in a little hole meant to approximate a termite mound, and after that, she’s showing off at the window. Some children squeal and refuse to get close, others walk straight up to try to connect hand to hand, eye to eye, against the glass.
And the artist obliges.

You can visit Janey during the zoo’s summer hours, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. June 22 through Sept. 3, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 4 through Sept. 21. Write to and