TV channels broadcast many American detective crime sagas like ‘CSI’, ‘Law and Order’, ‘Bones’ and ‘The Mentalist’.
They usually begin with a murder, followed by the hero and his staff solving the crime and then order is restored to society.
However, very few people know that this sequence of events in story form dates back to 1841 and involves an orang-utan.
The first crime short story was ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ by the American horror writer Edgar Alan Poe, whose tales still send chills up the spine. He is acknowledged as the first to write the modern detective story.
The story is set in Paris where the unnamed narrator meets a bankrupt member of the upper class, C Auguste Dupin. He has been reduced to poverty but doesn’t really care as his only desire is to read books.
The narrator, also in similar financial circumstances, befriends Dupin and together they stay at a “time eaten, grotesque mansion, long deserted through superstitions”.
They leave the mansion and are walking down the street when they hear shrieks from a four-storey home. Thirty people arrive and break down the door.
They search the house and find the body of a young woman shoved up a chimney head down. The second corpse is found in the back garden nearly beheaded. All of the windows and doors are locked.
Dupin and the narrator draw the conclusion that the attacker is not human from the evidence collected by the witnesses’ statements. The victim has orangey-red hair clasped in her fist, plus the finger pods are not human.
A description of the orang-utan of the time describes “the ourang-outang (sic) of the East Indian Islands as of gigantic stature, prodigious strength and activity, the wild ferocity, and the imitative propensities of these mammalia are known to all”.
Dupin hands this description to the narrator and both agree the killer is an ape. An orang-utan is labelled as the murderer and the hunt is on to identify it.
Through an advertisement, a sailor recently arrived from Borneo said he had taken possession of an orang-utan from a hunter who had passed away. However, the orang-utan had escaped.
The ape had been hidden in a closest. The sailor surmises that the orang-utan had learned the human behaviour of shaving through observation and had tried to shave the girl, inadvertently cutting her throat.
Remembering the whip for past misdeeds, the ape then flies into a rage and kills the younger girl. To hide this hideous act, he stuffs the girl up the chimney and hurls the remains of the older one into the back garden.
The sailor is turned over to the police. The fate of the murderous orang-utan is a mystery.
A film (available on YouTube) loosely based on the ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’, was shot in 1932 staring Bela Lugosi (star of the first ‘Dracula’ film) as a lunatic scientist who extracts blood from an ill-tempered orang-utan and injects it into virgin abducted women.
There is also another made for television version also available on YouTube.
Orang-utans influenced literature and traditional stories far earlier than Poe’s inclusion of a murderous one in ‘Murder in the Rue Morgue’.
Orang-utans figure in traditional stories of the peoples of Borneo and Sumatra; the only places where this ape naturally occurs.
Legends and stories tell tales of orang-utans attacking people, as in Poe’s, and orang-utans and humans marrying and producing half-human and half-ape children. Some believed it to be unlucky to look into the face of an orang-utan and if an ugly child is born then this was the cause.
However, in other stories, orang-utans are helpful. The Iban of Batang Ai have traditionally not hunted this ape as according to legend it taught mothers how to give birth naturally.
The inclusion of orang-utans and other apes in stories, novels and movies continues. In some like ‘Murders on the Rue Morgue’ they are evil creatures.
In others, for example in Clint Eastwood movies ‘Every Which Way But Loose’ and its sequel ‘Any Which Way You Can’, the orang-utan is a pet and a sidekick for the protagonist.
Their adorable liquid brown eyes and human facial expression are used to tug at the heartstrings. These highly endangered animals are poster animals for conservation of natural ecosystems.
In this sense, orang-utans are also featured in children’s stories developing an understanding and sensitivity to nature and endangered species.
Sometimes orang-utans are personified. In Disney’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic, ‘Jungle Book’, an orang-utan is the king of the monkeys with the animals being human in all but appearance. Kipling’s original story did not contain orang-utans as they are not native to India.
The continuing portrayal of orang-utans in present-day popular culture, including movies and books, indicates that despite urban dwellers disassociation from nature, that the link between us and the natural world continues.
Their obvious physical similarities (they do share 96.4 per cent of our genes) also connect.
Unfortunately, this ape is critically endangered with small populations in Borneo and Sumatra. This decline is caused by habitat destruction due to logging and large-scale agriculture, hunting and poaching.
The Eastwood films created a demand for pet orang-utans, as the film ‘Finding Nemo’ created a demand for clown fish.
To meet these demands, animals were taken from the wild for the pet trade. The cute baby orang-utans can only be taken if the mother is killed.
Fortunately the orang-utan actors in the Eastwood film were bred in captivity, but they are not people nor should they be sidekicks.
Even if it is not possible to return them to the wild, they should be allowed to live in as wild a condition as possible.
We can help save these wonderful apes by not buying them as pets or anything made from orang-utans. We should report the sale of these items to Sarawak Forestry.
For more information on orang-utans read ‘The Natural History of Orang-utan’ by Elizabeth L Bennett.
The Malaysian Nature Society
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