top of page
  • John Dainton aka Johny5dragons blog

Naughty Vandu

For 25 years, I have had a really great job, bizarre but really great. I have made artificial rocks for a living. We also undertook what is known in the trade as ‘Theming’. That is the art of building stuff that looks as if it is something other than what it really is, i.e. take a bunch of galvanized steel and concrete render and build a Castle, or a Tree, or a Coral Reef. We did this sort of work in Amusement Parks, Hotels, Houses, Casinos, Museums and Aquariums. I liked Museums because you got to do really detailed stuff and Aquariums because we got to do really weird stuff, but possibly the best jobs were the jobs we did for Animals. Because Animals are the best Clients. I never had a Meerkat complain that we went over budget, never had a Burmese Rock Python say the product wasn’t up to snuff, or an Alligator whinge that it wasn’t big enough. Not once did a Bulbul or a Bali Mynah get irritated about the size of the nesting boxes. Best of all, we had an Orangutan, who wanted to join in and be part of the team. Although it didn’t start out that way.

For a long, long time, people had complained that the Orangutans in Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens were being kept in a cage that, at best, could be described as a Prison. It was (And still is) a steel cage designed, not for the well-being of the inmates, but for the Park Staff, who found it easy to hose the faeces off the concrete floor. For Orangutan entertainment, there was a rope and sometimes a cardboard box, if they were lucky. It was a combined complex of 4 cages intended to keep the young male, Vandu, separated from the two older females, however, at some point Vandu was allowed to enter an adjoining cage to the girls and he managed to bonk one of them through the bars and get her pregnant, with twins. The Park Staff freaked out and Government, in the guise of Architectural Services Department, realized that if 3 Orangutans in Prison caused a lot of bad publicity, the outcome of 3 plus twin babies would result in a huge Public outcry.

We were numbered amongst the many groups lobbying the Government on behalf of the Orangutans and, given our previous jobs in Hong Kong Park and the Aviaries, they invited us to provide a design upgrade for the biggest cage and, once it had been approved, to build it. There were several meetings to discuss our proposals and the programme of works and, at the last of these, the Client advised that despite earlier assurances, Vandu could not be moved from the large holding cage butting up against the cage where we were working. They requested that we erect a floor to roof tarpaulin to screen off the works so that Vandu would not be disturbed, and we pointed out that this might actually be more disturbing due to the strange noises emanating from his home whereas, a half-height screen would allow him to watch the progress from above and descend behind it at any time he wanted privacy. This was agreed and works commenced.

The design involved construction of a small rock outcrop with a water cascade at the back of the cage, with a stream that ran to the front and into a small pool outside, from where it was pumped back. The entire back of the cage was raised and a grass slope introduced, with a forage pit and various large broken ‘tree’ elements for climbing and play. Dense planting was used outside the perimeter to hide the steel truss along the bottom of the cage and give the impression that the landscape flowed into the cage. In the centre back of the cage was a substantial space frame column, a series of criss-cross steel members that climbed up to, and helped support, the space frame roof. This we intended to decorate as a large dead tree trunk with a nesting platform on top and various knots and cracks in the main trunk. This ‘tree’ was hollow and backed up against the divide between the Main Cage and the Holding Cage, thus the back face was fitted with a gate through which the Keepers could access the interior of the tree, while the Orangutan could not. The knots and cracks in the trunk were, in fact, a series of puzzles by which the Keepers could place snacks and the Orangutan was required to locate and then work out how to get at them.

Work started and the half screen installed, but Vandu soon showed that, far from being stressed, he wanted to see everything going on and, where his long, strong and dexterous fingers could reach the screen, he tore it out and he became a permanent fixture, fastened to the cage grille, watching every move that we made. It’s difficult to forget the presence of a 250lb ape, but he would remain so still that the only thing reminding you that he was so close, was his stink and even that became unremarkable in a short space of time. However, he did not intend that we should forget that we were trespassing in his domain, despite his interest in our work.

On a hot and sticky day, one of our guys was laying bricks close to the rear of the cage when he heard and felt a wet sticky slap across his bared back. He turned to see Vandu staring straight at him and wiping the back of his hand across his nose, from where he had cupped a handful of Orangutan snot before flinging it. Several days later, another guy was surprised by a sudden shower of rain from a seemingly cloudless sky, only to turn and see Vandu peeing from on high. We weren’t allowed to fight back so the guys quickly learned to always keep one eye for the job and one for Vandu. This was especially the case when it came to placing the cement on the tree frame next to the Holding Cage bars. Vandu was fascinated by the cement and, as soon as it was placed, stuck his finger through the grille and scooped up a good-sized dollop. We didn’t mind, it was good that he was curious, and we hoped that after the first few dollops he might lose interest. Instead, he inspected it, sniffed it, licked it and then ate the whole thing, immediately poking his finger back for some more of this tasty snack! I freaked! I grabbed our hose pipe and gave him a squirt. He hated that and backed away. From then on, we had to have somebody on guard with the hose every time we placed cement until it had set hard. I had a frightening vision of the trouble I would be in if he got constipated and the X-ray showed a stomach full of concrete.

Then, one morning, the phone rang in my office. Disaster! Get to the Zoo Gardens as quickly as possible. I jumped a taxi and was there in a flash. We were still building the big tree and using a series of woven stainless-steel bars to create the basic shape. Working on a steel scaffold, where the bars were also stored, every time the guys moved around, the scaffold vibrated and, unbeknownst to them, the stored bars jumped around too. Vandu, camouflaged by his stillness, had patiently waited all morning for a single bar to jump close enough to the grille. Before anyone realized what was happening, those long, strong, dexterous fingers had reached in, grabbed 3 metres of steel bar and whipped it into his half of the cage. With a contemptuous look back at the stunned workers, he loped off into his night quarters and could now be heard the steady thud! Thud! THUD! As he slammed it against the Perspex skylight. Vandu had worked out an escape plan and was now putting it in to action. I was going to be the man responsible for 250lbs of Ape swinging through the Central Business District, during Lunchtime. My career was over.

Just then, the Head Keeper, having been told of the impending disaster, came running. He stood for a moment to calm himself and then playfully called out, “Vandu. Vaaaandu!” There was a pause in the thudding and then a large shaggy head peered through the doorway of the night quarters. “Vandu, look what I’ve got!” And the Keeper produced a small pot of yoghurt. Straight away Vandu put down the steel bar and loped over. “No Vandu! Naughty Vandu! Go back! Go back! You know… bring to me Naughty Vandu!” I watched as Vandu loped back inside and then, slowly, returned with the bar. He very carefully threaded it back through the grille into my waiting hands and then collected his reward. I was relieved, amazed and finally saddened that Vandu had sold his one chance at freedom, for a pot of yoghurt.

Postscript. The job was eventually completed and was as successful as it could be in the circumstances. Vandu took back his residence and immediately showed an appreciation of the refurbishments. I returned one day on my own to see how he was doing and was immediately faced with a design error. Vandu was sitting on the ground and carefully lifting the grass turves we had placed, he inspected the underside, picked off and ate any bugs or worms, replaced it, tamped it down and then lifted the next. There was no chance this grass was ever going to grow. He was so busy, he didn’t see me standing out on the Public side until I called his name. He stopped, looked up to see me and froze for a moment. He then turned around and hunkered down. I was a bit upset as we had always seemed to get on quite well. Then I thought about it and the only reason I could imagine was territorial. The cage had been his, then I took it, changed it into this improved environment and then, for some reason, I had left, and he had been allowed back in. Now I had returned and was probably expecting him to get out of My cage. I walked away and, for the next 40 minutes or so kept walking past at intervals, always smiling, never threatening and never stopping. From the corner of his eye, he watched my passage until he felt comfortable that I did not intend to take this away from him. He then came to the grille at the front, I paused, and he stared deep into my eyes. I was humbled, it was an honour to have worked with him.

75 views3 comments


Feb 09, 2022

What an amazing story and experience that only could’ve happened because of your love for animals. Vandu was as lucky to have you design and make his cage as you were to be able to work with hI’m.


Apr 03, 2021

A wonderful story John. I hope your friend is still with us, although living in a cage, however well-designed and equipped, cannot be a happy life for such a magnificent animal yearning to roam free.

May 04, 2021
Replying to

Big bro , May 4

Having observed , over many years , some of your own ,shall we say rather unusual habits , John , it may have been far more interesting , and certain.y more entertaining , for the people , and particularly. the zoologists of H.K. if they had kept you in the newly refurbished accommodation , and sent poor old Vandu back to Borneo where he belongs .

bottom of page