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Friday, September 29, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Animal tales: an orangutan escape artist, other stories

Seattle Times staff reporter

Want to meet a caique parrot who plays dead by sticking his little bird feet in the air? An orangutan who does chores in exchange for metal washers and cashes them in for treats? A timber wolf who plays "hunt" with his friends, a pair of Cretan goats?

It's all here - deception, greed, revenge, heroism and trust - animal style, in Eugene Linden's "The Parrot's Lament, and Other True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence and Ingenuity."

The Time magazine science writer and author will discuss his new book at 7 p.m. next Friday in the Woodland Park Zoo Auditorium, 5500 Phinney Ave. N., Seattle.

The decades-old scientific debate over what and how deeply animals think has grown stale, Linden says. So he took a different tact with this "unscientific" collection of true stories.

Weaving tales of zoo escapes, trade, extortion and practical jokes with scientific research, Linden can't help but point out: Whatever these critters are thinking, they sure act a lot like us.

Sally Blanchard, a parrot shrink in California, has a houseful of birds.

One parrot, an African grey named Bongo Marie, doesn't care for her housemates, particularly an Amazon parrot named Paco.

One day, Bongo Marie watched closely as her owner cooked a Cornish game hen, Linden writes.

"As Sally took out a knife to cut up her dinner, Bongo Marie threw her head in the air and said with great enthusiasm, `Oh no! Paco!' "

Trying not to laugh, Blanchard said "That's not Paco," and showed Bongo Marie that Paco was alive.

"Bongo Marie's response was to say, `Oh no,' in a very disappointed voice, and then launch into a maniacal laugh."

Bonnie, a female orangutan at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., had a son, Kiko, who was seriously ill. Her keepers wanted to give the baby an injection, but didn't want to separate the two.

So keeper Rob Shumaker held a syringe up to the bars and told Bonnie he needed to give the baby a shot. Bonnie knew shots hurt. But she apparently also knew it might help. Holding Kiko near the bars, she allowed the keeper to give him a shot in the thigh.

Harriet, another mom, also turned to a human friend under duress. The orphaned leopard was raised in the home of Indian conservationist Billy Arjan Singh. When the cat was grown, Singh returned her to a forest preserve across the river from his compound. Harriet moved on with her life, mating and eventually having two cubs.

Then floods came, jeopardizing her den, Linden writes. Swimming the river with the cubs in her jaws, the new mom moved them to the safety of Singh's kitchen.

When the water receded, Harriet left to inspect her den. But the river's current was still dangerous.

No problem. Singh had a dugout boat. Harriet hopped into the prow and then looked back as if to say "what are you waiting for?" Linden writes. "Singh took the hint and ferried the leopard and her babies across the river."

Keepers at the now defunct Marineland in Palos Verdes have little doubt orcas feel grief after caring for two star-crossed lovers, Orky and Corky, who were unable to produce a healthy baby.

During pregnancies, Orky swam beside Corky and pressed his forehead against her belly, presumably using his acoustic imaging abilities to give her a sonogram, Linden writes.

Once, when everything seemed normal, Orky ran his rostrum across Corky's side. He must have heard bad news.

"Orky went over to the wall and slammed his head against the side of the tank in an outburst of emotion. Two hours later, Corky aborted."

Like many orangutans, Fu Manchu was an accomplished escape artist. His most famous escape took place at the Omaha Zoo.

Twice his keepers found Fu Manchu, with his female companion and three children, in trees outside his exhibit area. The keepers diligently double-checked the locks. But a few days later, they found Fu Manchu and family basking in the morning sun on the roof of the exhibit.

Surveillance finally solved the mystery, Linden writes.

On nice days, when the orangutans were allowed outside, Fu Manchu made for the moat. In the wall of the moat was a door that led to the furnace room, which led to stairs and a door to freedom.

"Fu Manchu pulled the door back from its frame. Taking a piece of wire from his cheek, he then tripped the latch, much the way a thief might slip a credit card between a door and its frame."

Keepers confiscated the wire. But the escapes earned Fu Manchu honorary membership in the American Association of Locksmiths.

Paysha Stockton can be reached at 206-464-2752. Her e-mail address is pstockton@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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