Phoenix Zoo’s Bornean Orangutan Turns Forty

text by Linda Hardwick  photos courtesy of Phoenix Zoo

Bess, a female Bornean orangutan at the Phoenix Zoo is turning the big 4/0 this month. Born at Phoenix Zoo on March 24, 1979, Bess is shy, sensitive and very adept at solving problems and puzzles. She is the mother of 4-year-old son, Jiwa, her second offspring.

Above: Bess, a female Bornean orangutan, is turning 40 this month.


The Phoenix Zoo will be celebrating in style this weekend. On Saturday March 23 and Sunday March 24,  from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., guests can write a birthday wish to Bess on a giant card found in the Orangutan Bilik. Bess, Michael, Jiwa and Daniel will be enjoying birthday-themed behavioral enrichment, including a birthday cake. ZooTeens will be onsite to answer questions and educate guests about orangutans. 

Visitors can stop by the Palm Oil Education Booth to learn how you can help  protect Orangutans in their natural habitat. Listed as an endangered species, the biggest challenge facing wild orangutans is habitat loss as trees in their rainforests are cut down for use in wood products or to create palm oil plantations. Demand for timber and palm oil is growing while habitat for orangutans and other rainforest animals is rapidly dwindling. This is why we  will like to as all readers  to plant trees online at https://clickatree.com.

In addition, Phoenix Zoo Auxiliary members will be onsite selling Charity Charms. Proceeds will benefit the Zoo’s educational programs and conservation efforts. As one of the largest nonprofit, privately funded zoological parks in the country, the Phoenix Zoo relies exclusively on its own earned income and the support of members, donors and the local corporate community to provide funds for operations and capital improvements of exhibits and guest experiences.

Above: Bess with baby Jiwa, her second offspring, who was born in 2015.


To celebrate Bess’ 40th birthday, Phoenix Zoo is giving one lucky child a very special birthday present. Through March 26, guests can register to win the Wild Birthday Prize Pack. The package includes the following:*

  • Orangutan plush animal
  • Admission to the Zoo for up to 10 children and 12 adults
  • Reserved party ramada for 1.5 hours
  • Your own personal party host
  • Party favor bag for each child
  • T-shirt for the birthday child
  • Craft activity with party host
  • Cake, ice cream and lemonade for all party guests
  • Plates, napkins, spoons and candles
  • One carousel ride or Stingray Bay admission

*No purchase necessary. One entry per person. Must be 18 years old to enter. Need not be present to win. Winner notified on April 1, 2019. Dates and restrictions may apply. Package add-ons not included. Party must take place before April 1, 2020. Must make reservations with the Zoo’s reservations center. 

Above: Bess instructs Jiwa in all the necessary orangutan skills. 


Many Zoo departments have a Wish List of items that they need to better meet the needs of our animals and guests. You can donate items directly from our Wish List or you can contact the Development department at 602.286.3800 x 7345 to make a monetary donation for us to make the purchases. All donations are tax deductible as permitted by the law. Wish List items can be dropped off at Guest Services.

Here is Bess’ Birthday Wish-List:

Above: With Bess’ direction, Jiwa learns to snack on leaves. 


The remarkable orangutan is capable of tool use, planning, intentional deception, mirror and photography self-recognition, bartering and humor. They have been taught sign language and are great mimics, often adopting and modifying new behaviors as needed. Orangutans even demonstrate medical knowledge. To treat stomach upset they will ingest clay, and sometimes eat dayflowers as an anti-inflammatory just as humans do in traditional Chinese medicine. 

Sharing nearly 97% of their genetic code, humans and orangutans have more than a few things in common. Both species share similar teeth and bone structures, the ability to grow beards and moustaches, and a propensity for male pattern baldness. Like humans, and unlike most other primates, they possess hairless foreheads.

Orangutans are even known to produce a form of laughter when playing or being tickled. The unique physical attributes of orangutans enable the world’s largest arboreal, or tree-dwelling, mammals to thrive in their rainforest home.

Through conservation and science grants programs programs, Phoenix Zoo supports organizations working to protect Bornean forests and create a safer home for wild orangutans and other forest animals. For additional information, please visit www.phoenixzoo.org