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Lucy the Orangutan

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

My time in DC is nearing an end and I thought it appropriate to go say goodbye to the National Zoo which has been a treasure trove for free, amazing animal watching and sketching. So out I went with my camping stool and sketchbook for a last round. Little did I know…

Most of my experiences drawing at the National Zoo have been fun and a great way to interact with people, especially kids. But it’s difficult- there are cages, barriers, restless animals and hoards of people to contend with. I’ve spent a lot of time sketching various large birds simply because of their convenience: there are enough of them that usually one is sitting relatively still, they are large enough that I can see them from a distance, their enclosures are open, and they aren’t so popular that I’m forced to push small children out of the way and stake my claim to a bit of asphalt with a view (for some reason people seem to frown upon this kind of behavior).

Saturday afternoon I went into the Ape House, thinking I’d do a quick sketch and probably move on in a few minutes so I’d get to make the most of my goodbye visit. I sat down in a corner in front of one of the orangutan enclosures.  Within 5 seconds, she looked at me and came to sit facing me right in front of the glass. We spent the next hour together and it was the most phenomenal sketching experience of my life.

First I did a rough sketch as quickly as possible. I was so astonished that all I could think was “just get it fast, get something fast. She could get up and leave at any second.” I had attracted a large crowd around me and could hear cameras and people asking if maybe she recognized me? Maybe I came here often? No, I said. I come to the zoo fairly often, but I’ve never been sketching in the ape house. I’ve never spent any time with them. I learned that my subject’s name is Lucy and she is 39 years old.  After the first rough sketch I started drawing her portrait, taking more time. What I kept thinking was how human she looked, how expressive. Her hands, eyes and eyebrows, her mouth and her wise looking wrinkled forehead. As a result I think perhaps my sketch is too human, the eyes too far apart, the shape of the head not quite right. Still, I was drawing a portrait and interacting with my subject. I guess you could call it the primate connection.

Periodically I would turn my notebook around and show her. She didn’t seem all that impressed or even interested.  I don’t know enough about orangutans’ vision to know what a flat pencil drawing looks like to them, though I plan on finding out. The crowd that had gathered around me drew a lot of her attention as well. She was chewing and spitting up something occasionally to the disgust of her audience. I barely noticed, I was too focused.

When Lucy was finally sick of modeling I went and spoke to Jan, a longtime volunteer at the zoo who had been watching. She said that for whatever reason, Lucy was very interested in socializing and interacting with people, much more so than the other orangutans at the zoo. Jan told me: “When I first realized that they recognized me… you feel like you’ve been chosen!” I would never have sat down right in front of the glass had she been sitting there when I arrived- I wouldn’t have wanted to scare her! I realize I’m applying my own preconceptions and human ideas of manners to an animal born in captivity that has people pressing their heads against the glass making faces at her every day. Still, the fact that she came to me simply felt like magic. I just wish I knew what Lucy was thinking.

For more about Lucy and the National Zoo’s orangutans visit

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