By Margery Sharp

An enthusiastic audience of children and parents greeted author Laurel Neme at Pierson Library last week for an afternoon talk to accompany her new children’s picture book, Orangutan Houdini. Illustrated by Kathie Kelleher, the book title reflects the name of the famous early twentieth-century magician and escape artist, Harry Houdini. Published in October 2014, it tells the story of Fu Manchu, an orangutan in residence at the Omaha, Nebraska Zoo who also gained fame as an escape artist.

“I learned about this unusual orangutan living in the Nebraska Zoo while doing research for my first book in which I wrote about the illegal poaching and trafficking of wild animal body parts around the world,” Neme said. “I was fascinated by this orangutan, Fu Manchu, affectionately given the escape artist title by his zookeeper Jerry Stones.

“All orangutans come from one of two islands: Borneo or Sumatra,” Neme said. “This is where palm oil is produced in great quantities for the commercial food industry but in turn this has caused rapid deforestation in the islands and threatens the habitat of the orangutans since they live and build their nests in the palm trees.”

“Orangutans are apes, not monkeys,” Neme said. “They are much bigger than monkeys, have no tails, and their fur is orange in color. They are very intelligent and are great puzzle solvers and are adept at making tools to aid in solving a puzzle or opening a lock. Figuring out how to manage an escape was Fu’s prime motive, not the escape itself.”

Fu was able to open his locked cage numerous times to the frustration of zookeeper Stones. Often he would blame his assistants for forgetting to lock Fu in at closing time yet he (Stones) would find the ape outside the confines of his cage the next morning. Neme’s book tells how Fu worked out how to unlock his cage door without force.

Finally Stones’ staff set up cameras to see how Fu engineered his escapes. They watched as he fashioned a tool from a slip of wire to pick the lock. His intelligence was so admired eventually he was made an honorary locksmith and awarded a license from the American Association of Locksmiths.

Currently Neme writes for National Geographic and writes a regular blog. Her first book was Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species. She has spoken on ABC News Nightline and NPR and hosted a radio show, The Wildlife. She’s active, along with her son Jackson, in Outreach for Earth Stewardship, which is headquartered at Shelburne Farms.

Raised in Willmette, Illinois, Neme received her bachelor and master degrees in public policy from the University of Michigan and earned her PhD in public and international affairs at Princeton University.

She resides in Shelburne with her husband Chris, an energy efficiency consultant, and their son Jackson.

Her next talk will be at Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library on July 30 at 10:30am.

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