Skip to main content


An Orangutan in Paris

She likes tea, sews, draws on papers and is a self-taught master of tying and untying knots. But she is not a crafty woman of the DIY set: she is Wattana, an orangutan who lives in the Jardin des Plantes Zoo in Paris. And it is in Paris where Chris Herzfeld first encounters and becomes impressed by Wattana and her exceptional abilities with knots. In Wattana: An Orangutan in Paris Herzfeld tells not only Wattana’s fascinating story, but also the story of orangutans and other primates—including bonobos, chimpanzees, and gorillas—in captivity.

Offering a uniquely intimate look at the daily lives of captive great apes, Herzfeld uses Wattana’s life to trace the history of orangutans from their first arrival in Europe in 1776 to the inhabitants of the Zoo of Paris and other zoos today. She provides a close look at the habits, technical know-how, and skills of Wattana, who, remarkably, uses strings, paper rolls, rope, and even pieces of wood to make things.  And she thoughtfully explores how apes individually—and often with ingenuity—come to terms with and adapt to their captive environments and caretakers. Through these stories, Wattana sympathetically reveals the extraordinary psychology and distinctive personalities of great apes as well as the interconnections between animal and human lives, especially in zoos.

Scientists predict that orangutans will disappear from the wild by 2030, and captive animals like Wattana may, as a result, provide our best chance to understand and appreciate their astonishing intelligence and abilities. Wattana, the accomplished maker of knots, is the hero of this poignant book, which will enthrall anyone curious about the lives of our primate cousins.

192 pages | 22 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Anthropology: Physical Anthropology

Biological Sciences: Behavioral Biology, Evolutionary Biology


“In Wattana, Herzfeld has rescued from obscurity the social histories of great apes who are confined for our own amusement. They are known to us perhaps in some generic sense as our evolutionary cousins, but are almost always invisible as the vibrant, thinking, feeling individuals they are. Herzfeld reminds us that the great ape mind is on display not just in the forests of Tanzania or Ivory Coast, but also in the institutions in every European country and American state (Herzfeld’s examples are Euro-American) we visit to while away a few hours.”

Times Literary Supplement

“A movingly tragic study in praise of Wattana, a Bornean orangutan. . . . Commercial depredations are spoiling Wattana’s ancestral forest habitat at such a rate that the orangutans of Borneo will probably be extinct by 2030. In the meantime, Wattana and other captives surviving in zoos show how intelligent, talented, and affectionate orangutans can be.”


“For Herzfeld, author of Wattana, great apes lead lives every bit as interesting as their wild cousins—in some ways, more so. By interacting with their human keepers, they learn skills that wild apes can never master—like the elaborate and beautiful knots that Wattana, a female orangutan, ties.”

National Geographic

“In wonderfully concise and restrained prose, Herzfeld lays out the evidence for primate culture. Her particular area of study is that of apes in human captivity, a shared history of species which has a three-centuries-old history in the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Here, and in hundreds of other zoos around the world, the boundaries between Homo sapiens and their nearest genetic neighbours are blurred.”

Philip Hoare | New Statesman

“Herzfeld, founder of the Great Apes Enrichment Project, follows the life of an orangutan named Wattana who is housed at the Jardin de Plantes Zoo in Paris. Wattana exhibits a strong interest in human pastimes, thanks in large part to her upbringing among human caretakers after being rejected by her mother. Herzfeld describes how Wattana became a talented and avid knot maker: weaving a variety of materials in and out of her cage bars like a giant macramé project, tying knots in careful sequences, and improvising items when no conventional materials could be found. Wattana appears to derive much pleasure from her creative knot work, just one of several highly human behaviors she exhibits. Herzfeld documents her observations of Wattana while offering historical and scientific information about the great apes, both in the wild and in captivity. Scientists, zookeepers, animal behaviorists, and those with similar credentials will find Herzfeld’s book both fascinating and educational.”

Publishers Weekly

“For this thoughtful, unusual study of the human–ape ‘interface,’ philosopher of science Herzfeld focuses on a captive orangutan, one of less than 1,000 worldwide. Zoo-born Wattana, given string, cloth and paper at the Jardin des Plantes menagerie in Paris, made elaborate knots and ‘necklaces’ — a skilful use of fibre unsurprising in a tree-dwelling primate that builds complex nests, yet so far seen only in captivity. A trove of gripping research.”


“Herzfeld offers fascinating reflections on a zoo-born ape and her human cultural context. A must-read for anyone interested in the shifting human-animal boundary—including creativity and the aesthetic sense—as illustrated by an exceptionally talented orangutan.”

Frans de Waal, author of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

“If you have ever wondered how smart and sensitive an ape can be, read Wattana, an engaging account of an orangutan who deserves a biography as much as any human subject has ever done.”

Ian Tattersall, author of The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack and Other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution

”In this absorbing study, blending science, history, and philosophy in an altogether original way, Herzfield uses the story of a non-wild ape, the zoo orangutan Wattana, to explore a range of important questions about both sides of the ape-human encounter. Wattana's complexity, and the dignity and interest of lives like hers, are rendered unforgettably.”  

Gregory Radick, author of The Simian Tongue: The Long Debate about Animal Language

Table of Contents


1. The Ménagerie of the Jardin des Plantes
2. Growing Up among Humans
3. Living at the Zoo
4. An Orangutan Who Can Tie Knots
5. On the Aesthetic Sense in Great Apes


Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press