This year during Art Basel week, Jungle Island is making room for itself with an event that is as zany as it is philanthropic: Orangutan Art for a Cause. Head to Jungle Island at 1 p.m. December 1 through 4 to witness orangutans showcasing their painting skills. The intelligent primates are eager to share their creative process. They'll be accompanied by Linda Jacobs — AKA the Orangutan Mama — and students from the Miami International University of Art & Design.
As a Jungle Island volunteer for more than 20 years, Jacobs knows a thing or two about orangutans. Her love of the species began as a child during family trips to the Pittsburgh Zoo. So when she landed a gig at Jungle Island, she knew she had found her niche. “After the first week... I said, ‘You’re never getting rid of me.’ It was one of those things that just clicked, and you knew that you found your purpose,” Jacobs says.
Jacobs identifies herself not as a trainer but as a keeper — ensuring the well-being of the animals on a personal level. One of her greatest accomplishments has been raising fraternal twins Peanut and Pumpkin since birth. “I’ve studied animal behavior and caring for orangutans and primates, but the best teacher has been the one-on-one experience,” she says.
Peanut is a special member of Jungle Island, having beaten non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, diagnosed in 2012, with the help of the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Jacobs and Jungle Island are happy to be celebrating Peanut and Pumpkin’s 13th birthday during the event, complete with orangutan-friendly veggie-and-fruit birthday cake.
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In addition, five specially selected students will share their unique interpretations of Jungle Island with masterpieces for sale, profiting Orangutan Outreach. Senior ceramics major Robert DeLeon says each participant shares a passion for animals and raising awareness about endangered species. DeLeon has dedicated much of his artwork to the topic, but getting face-to-face with the orangutans for this project was a major game-changer. “You get that feeling like, ‘This is it.’ We only have a small number of them. It gives it a different meaning when you get to actually interact with the animal. For me, it was on a whole different level,” DeLeon says.
The compassion that Jacobs and DeLeon exude is contagious. Jacobs describes her dedication to the orangutans as “the most unique, amazing, wonderful privilege ever.” They hope this event will open visitors’ eyes to the severity of the global orangutan crisis. The act of art-making with the orangutans proves to be more than just a brush in hand and scribbles on a canvas: It’s an act of expression. “It’s kind of funny because you can almost tell what their mood is that day,” Jacobs says. “You can tell there’s a high level of intelligence. There’s a soul in there.”
Orangutan Art for a Cause is free with the purchase of one-day park admission, which costs $39.95 per adult and $32.95 per child. Visit jungleisland.com.