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JEREMY KEELING: The orangutan who saved my life

By Jeremy Keeling

Last updated at 6:02 PM on 12th June 2010

Scarred by his traumatic childhood, Jeremy Keeling found solace working with exotic animals. Now, in his enchanting and touching book, he reveals how he became a ‘mother’ to an abandoned baby orang-utan called Amy - and how she healed his broken heart...

The car climbed the steep bank at high speed and then rolled – nose to tail – back on to the motorway hard shoulder, the impact ripping the roof and shattering windows. Everything went black. I suffered head injuries, as did Amy, the one-year-old orang-utan I had rescued after her mother abandoned her.

Luckily, my girlfriend Meryl was unscathed and my son Jamie escaped with bruising. A policeman, arriving at the scene, crawled into the mangled wreck from the rear and saw the back of my blood-soaked head. He noticed a large, hairy hand reach out and wrap itself around my head, cradling it. I had once saved Amy. And now she would not let me go.



Discarded by her mother: Jeremy Keeling with Amy, the orang-utan he adopted

There was always an innate attraction between me and the orange people – the orang-utans (the name actually comes from the Malay for 'man of the forest'). Chimps are highly intelligent and sociable. Gorillas are gregarious but lazy.

The orang-utan, though, is a simple, solitary creature that just wants to eat, sleep and work out mechanical formulas. It is the grumpy old man of the forest, something I empathise with. That's why I felt so much for Amy. I knew what it was like to be unwanted. I too had been discarded by my mother, Jill, who ran our family zoo in the Pennines, as punishment for making contact with my absent father.

I was forced to live in a beaten-up caravan at the age of 12, deprived of love and affection. Perhaps that was why I was so drawn to Amy. We were both loners. My mother was the dominant force in my family. The death of her childhood sweetheart days before they were to marry left a bitter resentment that she took to her grave.

After I left home, I briefly worked with chimps at a zoo owned by family friends and later at Colchester Zoo, where I gained my first introduction to orang-utans. Here was I, a troubled 18-year-old, responsible for chimps, baboons, spider monkeys, capuchins, gibbons and lemurs. The main draw for me, however, were Guy and Prissy, the zoo's orang-utans. You just get on better with some people than others and it is exactly the same with animals.

In 1975, I was hired as a keeper at a private zoo in Surrey owned by Gordon Mills, a multi-millionaire music impresario. Gordon had struck gold by taking Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck to stardom. This was rock 'n' roll zoo-keeping.

After arriving at Gordon's zoo, I worked hard to raise standards of cleanliness, safety and diet. By the time Amy was born, I had tried to save her mother Jane's two previous babies. Both died before they reached three months, despite my constant attention.

Amy's birth was thankfully trouble-free, but from then on she was in grave peril. It didn't help that her mother discarded her. I kept her warm by borrowing a hospital incubator and force-feeding her milk every two hours. Utterly uninterested in feeding, she just wanted to cling to me, the natural reaction of a helpless, defenceless baby orangutan. I had become her mother.

After nurturing Jane's previous babies, I went into a familiar routine: putting Amy in baby-grows to keep her warm, and wearing a mask to prevent infection. I was her protector, but at some point I needed to expose her to the world to build up her immunity. Amy stayed in the incubator for two months, a lot longer than she should have done.


Friends forever: A baby orang-utan is conditioned to hang on to its mother. It takes a long time, several months, before it lets go and starts doing things for itself

One day, I turned off the lamps. Constant feeding had given her some strength, but it remained hard work. I made a home for her by fixing a plywood box with a Perspex front on a television stand so I could wheel her around. I christened this contraption Evil Edna and introduced it to Amy. Orangutans live in treetops.

They are not made for walking around on the ground and really have four hands for clinging to things. I put a teddy bear in with Amy and drifted off to sleep, hoping for a few minutes' rest before the next feed. Fat chance. I was jolted awake by a cacophony – Amy was in hysterics. She had rolled on top of the teddy and panicked because she had nothing to grab on to.

I rolled up a towel and she grabbed on to it with her feet as if it were a perch. Amy settled instantly, looking at me with her brown saucer eyes as if to say: 'Don't ever do that again, OK?'

I counted down the days until the three-month mark with pride and panic. 'So you think life is worth living after all?' I asked her that night.

She was hanging on, to the towel and life. In the evenings, I would wheel her into the lounge in Evil Edna so we could watch television. Slowly, with each ounce of milk that Amy drank, I felt more confident. I still had the other orang-utans and gorillas in the zoo to care for, not to mention the tigers, and it was becoming a problem giving Amy the constant care she needed.

So I brought in extra help. Amy remained dependent on me though, and would cling on to my shoulders like an angora backpack as I walked around.

Sometimes I had to take her to the shops. She would sit in the car passenger seat or, more often, hang upside down in the back window, gurning at passers-by and enjoying the chaos she wrought.

Just like her mother, Amy was inherently bloody-minded. Her modus operandi was ‘because I can’
and pointing out her shortcomings had little effect. A baby orang-utan is conditioned to hang on to its mother. It takes a long time, several months, before it lets go and starts doing things for itself.

I made sure I laid down the ground rules. If I was watching television and Amy was plucking things from the bookshelf, I would raise my voice.

‘You’ve got your things and I’ve got mine,’ I told her as I scooped up the scattered pages. ‘Let’s keep it that way.’


Milk of kindness: Jeremy fed Amy every few hours and took her with him everywhere

Hand-rearing Amy meant I couldn’t do anything for myself that took longer than 20 minutes. I barely had more than an hour’s unbroken sleep and, although I loved her, I looked forward to the day
when I could throw her out of the house.

Despite her quirks, it was Amy who diverted me from wallowing in negative thoughts when Gordon announced he was closing his zoo, leaving me without a job or home.

In 1984, I found a job at Howletts, the zoo in Kent owned by John Aspinall, the bookmaker turned Mayfair club owner. Amy came with me. I was driving on the M2 back to Kent with my girlfriend Meryl and son Jamie, from a previous marriage, when I fell asleep at the wheel and crashed.

I had fractured my skull in three places and there was a fragmented area above my right ear. A later
scan showed that I had suffered significant brain damage.

‘I’m afraid your son is unlikely to live until morning,’ the hospital consultant told my mother after I
arrived unconscious. ‘He is clinically brain dead.’

‘He’s never been brain alive,’ she replied, before giving her permission to turn off the life-support
machine. ‘I do not agree with keeping people alive in a vegetative state,’ she said. ‘A waste of resources.’

Her advice was ignored and I came out of the coma after three days. My recovery from the crash
took a little longer, however, and nothing would truly look the same again. It gave me a wider perspective.

I read, hugged Amy and came to appreciate the basic values and relationships that get taken for granted.

The next three years would be a recuperation period. Meryl and I married and had a son, Kenyon.
Amy had now outgrown the small quarters I had built for her in the house we had in Kent, so I set about constructing something better on the patio.

Even though she would still accompany me as I rode my bicycle around, her long, matted hair and
rubber hand occasionally obscuring my vision and putting us both in fresh peril, my intention was
always to see Amy living with other animals.

‘I like you, dear,’ I told her one day, ‘but don’t you think you should start behaving like an orangutan?’

Amy was probably unaware that she was an orangutan. She saw me as her mother; an odd-looking, gruff mother, perhaps, but a mother nonetheless.

She was there for me, too. In 1987, Meryl, Kenyon and I moved to Dorset, where I co-founded
Monkey World, a sanctuary in Wareham, together with Jim Cronin, with whom I’d worked at Howletts. Meryl’s and my second child Megan was born shortly after.

Monkey World’s opening day did not go well. Most of our monkeys had been rescued from laboratories and were hesitant about exploring their vast, new enclosures. There was little to see.

We watched one group of people shuffling between the apparently empty enclosures and looking up at the lemurs’ trees, mystified. Then a light bulb flashed on in my mind. I rushed back to Amy. ‘Right,
old girl,’ I said. ‘It’s show time!’

I took her by the hand and she jumped up on to my chest. We shuffled along until we came across the first visitors. The reaction was instant. Eyes lit up and children smiled.

‘This is Amy,’ I began.

‘She’s so cute,’ a woman gushed.

Amy was a huge hit. I squeezed her and she tapped me on the head with her knuckles, as if to see if there was anything inside. Not for the first time in my life, Amy had saved the day.

There were times, however, when I had to be cruel to be kind. Amy’s genes were too valuable to waste. I wanted her to live with other orangutans and become a mother.

Unfortunately, she did not behave much like an ape. She would have breakfast with Kenyon and sit on his bed, next to his gorilla soft toy.

One day, I decided enough was enough. So I took her outside and showed her the trees that surrounded our hut.

‘This,’ I said, pointing upwards, ‘is known as a tree. You climb them.’

Like most apes, orangutans respond to hand signals, especially if accompanied by a reward. But
they also learn by example. Amy was unimpressed. She hung on to me, showing no inclination to
start shinning up a trunk. I sighed. There was only one thing for it: I started climbing the tree with her
clinging on.

When we got to the top, I hoped she would disembark and do what orang-utans do. But no, so I prised her from me and deposited her at the top of the tree before climbing down.

I had barely got to the bottom before the screaming began, obliging me to start climbing back up. I was surely the only man to have saved an orang-utan from a tree. She jumped back on me and I fixed her with an incredulous glare.

‘How come I get the only orang-utan in the world who is scared of heights?’ I asked.


Monkey puzzles: Jeremy with his son Jamie and Amy in 1984

It was only much later, when Amy got her own enclosure and when she thought I wasn’t looking, that she decided she would happily climb to the highest point. It was a point of principle with her. If I wanted her to do something, then she would do the opposite.

Amy moved into her enclosure the following year. Not that she was pleased: she sat in a hairy pile and looked plaintively out of the mesh, condemnation in her large, sad eyes.

It took her three days to make her mark. First, Amy had hit the window of her quarters with a pebble. Then she got a bigger stone. Finally, she dug a hole and found a great big rock, which she had gleefully bashed against the window, leaving a large, jagged crack. ‘Ah, just the job.’

Orang-utans will happily use tools. They’ll work anything out given time. A few days later, Amy was introduced to another orang-utan.

On loan from Chester Zoo, Banghi was 15 days younger. I was glad to see that Amy’s hand-rearing had not tempered her instincts. She started hollering, and gave him a few slaps and thumps.

The following day, I let the two outside. Amy had evidently been relishing this prospect, because the first thing she did was introduce Banghi to the electric fence round her enclosure – by pushing him head first into it.

By now, a battered Banghi was aware of their roles and the pair settled down to a harmonious life. Banghi was a good boy and a simple soul; Amy wasn’t.

Meanwhile, my own relationship in the human world was not working out. A gulf had grown between Meryl and me and she eventually left, taking Kenyon and Megan with her.

I coped with the situation by burying my head in the sand and throwing myself even deeper into the care and wellbeing of my other, animal family. And I always had Amy - not much of a looker I admit, but a reliable presence.

Our chimps were highly successful at breeding, so much so that we had to put them on the contraceptive pill. Every unplanned birth meant one less place for a neglected or abused animal.
It was ironic that, while we were trying to prevent chimp pregnancies, Amy’s went wrong.

She became pregnant by Banghi but she had a miscarriage. To make matters worse, Banghi was ill.
Fortunately, Amy became pregnant again and this time we were lucky.

One morning I went to Amy’s enclosure to find a bundle of wispy hair shrouding large brown eyes. Gordon had arrived – Monkey World’s first orang-utan birth. I was now a surrogate grandmother.

While Amy had cleaned him, it was obvious she did not know what to do. As with humans, if a child is neglected by parents, the chances are it will then become a poor parent itself. When Amy put Gordon down, I took that as the sign. An orang-utan should never do that to a baby, so I realised we would have to remove Gordon.

I went in with Amy and tried to encourage her to fend for Gordon, but she adopted an air of utter indifference.

I felt sorry for Amy. The poor thing had no idea what to do. I thought back to my own childhood and my mother’s lack of maternal instincts and sympathised.


Loving touch: Jeremy, Amy, Gordon and Jim Cronin's wife Alison at Monkey World

I reintroduced Gordon to Amy a year later. She was initially indifferent, but they eventually grew to love each other. Gordon had to dig away at that tough, grizzled exterior to find the soft underbelly of the mother ape. But before long, he would refuse to go anywhere without her.

Sadly, though, poor Banghi’s health deteriorated and we decided the kindest
thing to do was put him to sleep.

Amy, however, got a new mate, Tuan, a magnificent beast found running amok in a city in Taiwan after he had escaped from being kept as a pet. He was captured and brought to Britain.

Tuan soon settled down at Monkey World and he and Amy mated. In fact, that proved to be Gordon’s downfall. Intrigued by the grunting of the rutting beasts, he wandered over. Tuan is a nice creature, but everyone needs a degree of privacy, so he clouted him.

Gordon was unabashed and came back for more, which was when Tuan snapped and inadvertently bit his eye. Along with his Fu Manchu beard, this remains Gordon’s distinctive mark.

With Tuan settled in, though, we had a proper group of orang-utans. For me it was the end of a journey that had started when I had force-fed Amy. Finally, the old girl was part of a family.
It felt good.

Today orang-utans are facing a much wider struggle. Their natural habitats in Borneo and Sumatra are being destroyed by the palm oil and logging industries. Poachers shoot the mothers
and sell the carcass as an illegal delicacy, while the babies are smuggled into the pet trade.

Experts estimate wild orang-utans will be extinct within ten years. While some have argued that if an animal is unable to survive in the wild then it should be left to die, I believe it is our duty to preserve these wonderful animals.

Many might wonder just what I see in Amy, a gruff, solitary 27-year-old with a chip on both shoulders, but we have been through so much together that there will always be something special between us.
I don’t know what the future is for orang-utans, but I am glad there are people working hard to help them. If I have done my bit, I am happy.

It is a two-way street though. I may have helped to save orang-utans like Amy but, in return, I have been rescued by her and the orange people.

  • Jeremy & Amy: The Extraordinary Story Of One Man And His Orang-Utan is published by Short Books on July 1, price £16.99. To order your copy at the special price of £11.99 with free p&p, call The Review Bookstore on 0845 155 0713 or visit MailLife.co.uk/Books.

Horace and his tiger feats

Horace was one of five Bengal tiger cubs born in Gordon Mills’s private zoo in Surrey in 1975.

Horace had a rare genetic disorder that gave him an ungainly posture, obliging him to spend his days lying face down, legs splayed, like a tiger-skin rug.

London Zoo put his survival chances as low as five per cent and suggested putting him down, but I refused. Instead, a surgeon made Horace miniature metal splints, allowing him to stand for the first time, a look of happy confusion spreading across his face.

The doctor taught me massage techniques and Horace progressed from an ungainly waddle to a clumsy walk.

Clanking around in his irons, he eventually managed to run. I regarded it as a miracle when the splints were discarded, but he would be barrel-chested for the rest of his life.

Horace and I would take a morning constitutional around Gordon’s pristine gardens, Horace doing what he wanted and me trying to hold on to the heavy metal chain attached to his collar.

His favourite part was a dip in the swimming pool. His pace would increase until he crashed into the water, dragging me along in his wake.

Tigers love water and Horace would swim through the pool, almost drowning me asI clung to the 15st 10lb pussycat, and then emerge to shake what seemed like ten gallons of water from his fur.

On one occasion, Gordon insisted we surprise one of his clients, the pop singer Gilbert O’Sullivan, by turning up at his nearby mansion with Horace. We took Gordon’s brand-new Mercedes.

On the way back, Gordon hit the accelerator and a disgruntled Horace started frantically clawing the back seats, sending leather and foam flying. I expected the sack, but Gordon just laughed.

Who'd be king of their jungle?

Jess, pictured here with Arfur, a chimp I hand-reared, came to Monkey World in a seven-strong group of chimpanzees after Windsor Safari Park closed in 1992. We agreed to rehome her and the rest of her gang – Buxom, Jestah, Jane, Bixa and Evie and their leader Rodney.

Several years later I would try an audacious introduction of Rodney's group to another dominated by a chimp called Paddy.  With chimps, there is always one dominant male and so this situation quickly became a showdown between Paddy and Rodney. 

It was a bit like the chimp version of West Side Story - a lot of shouting and bawling, posturing and politics.

Jess later had a baby, which we named Rodders after Rodney, who had died of a heart attack.


Jess, pictured with Arfur, a chimp Jeremy hand-reared

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