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That time when Oliver Sacks met an orangutan at the Toronto Zoo

That time when Oliver Sacks met an orangutan at the Toronto Zoo
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Most people know him best as the author of Awakenings, which was later made into the 1990 Oscar-winning movie starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. In that book, as with his many other writings, the late author and neurologist Oliver Sacks brought to popular culture people whose minds were different; as a result, he encouraged empathy and understanding.

That combination of scientific and writerly acuity earned him the nomer “the poet laureate of medicine” by the New York Times. Sacks died just after the publication of his 2015 memoir On The Move. And so, the essays in this new book, Everything In Its Place, First Loves and Last Tales (Knopf) are a chance for readers to hear fresh stories in his voice one last time. One of the pieces, a quite short one among some of the longer essays and observances in the book, describes a memorable encounter he had when he visited the Toronto Zoo. Here, too, he’s making connections and encouraging empathy.

Everything In Its Place, by Oliver Sacks, Knopf Canada, 288 pages, $34.  (Knopf Canada)

A combination of scientific and writerly acuity earned Oliver Sacks the nomer “the poet laureate of medicine” by the New York Times.  (Adam Scourfield)

Orangutan, by Oliver Sacks

Some years ago while visiting the Toronto Zoo, I visited an orangutan. She was nursing a baby — but when I pressed my bearded face against the window of her large, grassy enclosure, she put her infant down gently, came over to the window, and pressed her face, her nose, opposite mine, on the other side of the glass. I suspect my eyes were darting about as I gazed at her face, but I was much more conscious of her eyes. Her bright little eyes — were they orange too? — flicked about, observing my nose, my chin, all the human but also apish features of my face, identifying me (I could not help feeling) as one of her own kind, or at least closely akin. Then she stared into my eyes, and I into hers, like lovers gazing into each other’s eyes, with just the pane of glass between us.

I put my left hand against the window, and she immediately put her right hand over mine. Their affinity was obvious — we could both see how similar they were. I found this astounding, wonderful; it gave me an intense feeling of kinship and closeness as I had never had before with any animal. “See,” her action said, “my hand, too, is just like yours.” But it was also a greeting, like shaking hands or matching palms in a high five.

Then we pulled our faces away from the glass, and she went back to her baby.

I have had and loved dogs and other animals, but I have never known such an instant, mutual recognition and sense of kinship as I had with this fellow primate.
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