[monkeywire] Denver apes enjoy aromatherapy
carrie at stayfreemagazine.org
Mon Nov 10 23:03:49 EST 2003
Zoo goes ape for aromatherapy
By Diedtra Henderson
Tuesday, October 28, 2003 -
Up to twice a day, Mias, a 310-pound orangutan at the Denver Zoo,
gets in touch with his more sensual side. A little dab of
aromatherapy will do it.
Start with frankincense. Mias prefers a drop rubbed on his forehead.
Move to eucalyptus. A little swipe above his top lip, please. The
great ape swivels and rakes his hairy back against the door.
"Ready? Last one," says orangutan keeper Rhonda Pietsch, tiny bottle
of angelica in hand.
Mias presses his forehead against the grill to receive an essential
oil that promotes clarity of mind.
It's all in a day's routine at the indoor enclosure for great apes at
the Denver Zoo.
The best Pietsch can tell, the zoo is the only one in the nation to
offer aromatherapy to help keep its 11 great apes calm, cool and
collected. Fort Worth, Texas, has a proposal working its way through
It was Pietsch's idea to use aromatherapy on Denver Zoo orangutans.
She had had success with it herself at home. The test for captive
primates came when hostilities flared during "stick wars" between two
male orangutans. The basil oil worked so well at easing tensions,
each ape now is offered aromatherapy twice a day.
As with human primates, the special scents don't replace traditional
medicine. But complementary therapy would surely do no harm for
ailments lacking a medical remedy, Pietsch figured.
She only has anecdotal evidence of the treatment's success: Fennel
soothed Mias' nervous stomach. Melissa, bergamot and peppermint
lifted Allie's spirits after the 8-year-old's mother died. Oils such
as yarrow and rose had Sally, a creaky 36-year-old, moving like a
As in humans, a sizable number of great apes' genes are devoted to
enabling the sense of smell. But evolution hasn't eroded that sense
in gorillas and orangutans as it has in humans.
Mammal bodies assign 1,000 genes to the task of distinguishing sweet
from sour, pleasant from acrid scents. Six hundred of those genes are
so faulty in humans, they no longer work.
"In the great apes, the number of lost genes is half as large. So,
only 300 are lost and 700 are intact," said Doron Lancet, a professor
in the Weizmann Institute's molecular genetics department in Israel.
The difference probably gives gorillas and orangutans a more refined
sense of smell compared with humans. But their olfactory skills are
still a far cry from those sleuths of smell, canines. Dogs are able
to detect traces of food or the scent of a mate from farther away.
Still, aromatherapy uses high-enough concentrations for
scent-challenged primates - humans and otherwise - to detect.
"If you can do it to people, of course you can do it with animals
that have a better sense of smell," Lancet said. "Whether or not
aromatherapy is effective is another question."
In the orangutans' indoor enclosure at the Denver Zoo, the massive
mammals sometimes squeak, vomit or spit with precision to get
attention. But never do they giggle when essential oils are offered
each morning and afternoon.
"I had read they're so attuned to smell - they smell everything,"
Pietsch said. "I read essential oils could be used that way."
Each captive ape now has its own special spray that blends each
favorite oil - rosemary, carrot seed, yarrow, basil, geranium,
sandalwood and jasmine, for instance, for Allie.
That the scents are offered at all is through the donations of
Frances Cleveland, who runs a Littleton-based
It takes 150 pounds of fresh lavender flowers or 2,000 pounds of rose
petals for her suppliers to make a pound of each essential oil.
Cleveland notices a lighter touch works for oils for great apes: a
single drop vs. the 10 drops a human needs.
Horse clients - few surprises - prefer carrot seed, chamomile, thyme
and vetiver, an Indian grass, Cleveland says. Her canine clients like
a deeply scented oil that smells like "perfumey dirt."
"I just go with what the animals are telling me," Cleveland said.
Apes like the smell of grapefruit.
"I would not think an orangutan - or any animal - would like
grapefruit," she said. "But, then again, they like citrus. For me, a
surprise may not be a surprise to the zookeeper."
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