Mahal Memory

On a winter day In 2008, I took my drawing students to the Milwaukee County Zoo to sketch from the animals. My intention was to head to the aquatic and reptile center, as the animals there make far more agreeable models. Snakes tend to move very little and even though fish swim continuously, as schooling creatures, another will follow for you to look at. Reptiles and amphibians also tend to have less appendages to deal with that change with their activity, making them less intimidating subjects for beginning art students. On that day, however, there was no resisting the charm of the newest addition to the zoo, Mahal, a young orangutan, as my students and I passed through the primate building. We had to draw the orangutans.

Mahal had been brought from a zoo in Colorado, where his birth mother had rejected him as well as a surrogate. Hope was riding on the fact that M.J., a female orangutan at the Milwaukee County Zoo, would “adopt” him…and she did.

Mahal sat in a cushioned pile of cloths while Mom M.J. played with what was either the skin of a fruit or paper in her mouth (I cannot remember which now). Mahal spent most of his time with his back to his audience while occasionally turning around. I have to say I enjoyed both views since his hair was dramatic from both angles, standing up and curling back like ocean waves. He seemed a very happy and content little fellow, and M.J. relaxed, watching over him, while she herself played with the object in her mouth, flipping it in and out.

One thing that has always struck me about orangutans is the connection they make with you through their eyes. It is deeper than many other creatures I have come across. I remember an orangutan at the Oregon Zoo who patiently watched as I sketched her. She would look at me, then the sketch, then back at me, then back at the sketch. I then videotaped her and played the tape back for her to watch. She calmly viewed it. I wondered what she was thinking. It was apparent she was contemplating all she experienced, as her eyes studied me closely. M.J. had that same penetrating, thoughtful look in her eyes. Mahal’s eyes were filled with wonder and questioning and curiosity.

Yesterday, I found out that Mahal died unexpectedly. He was only five years old. They believe it may have been pneumonia. Hence it is the impetus for posting this image and writing these words. I thought of the zookeepers – Dawn and others who had cared for and loved him. I know they feel great loss and that makes me sad. For them, everyday for the past five years has been connecting with the spirit in those eyes. What does one say at such a time, when time has stopped for that spirit to exist here? I don’t know what the perfect thing to say is. I can only say what I know. I know every time I saw Mahal he showed all the signs of a positive, adventurous, playful, joyful being. I know when I spoke with keepers, they reflected great affection for him and they gave him their best. Mahal was blessed and his life was full, short though it was. All lives should be so blessed…and it can be so to a degree. We all have the capacity to treat life with compassionate action.

Thanks to the Milwaukee County Zookeepers who watched over Mahal during his time. You’ve done well (I have a feeling Mahal is causing some mischief in heaven now…).

If you would like to read more about Mahal, here’s a link:
You can also read archived articles about Mahal and the plight of orangutans:


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