The game plan was pretty simple.
“Two of our orangutans, Rocky and Azy, are going to reveal the names as we learn them. Within seconds of knowing who the actual pick is, the apes are going to reveal those using their computer monitors,” said Dr. Dr. Rob Shumaker, director of Indianapolis Zoo.
They had been planning it for months, practicing for weeks, and when the big moment arrived, they executed perfectly.
“Hassan and I are coming to you live from the Indianapolis Zoo, a nationally recognized orangutan center,” said Colts owner and vice chair Kalen Jackson. “With the 137th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts select…”
With a ding, the monitor lit up and Rocky the orangutan touched the screen to reveal the name.
“Zach Banner, guard at USC,” said defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway.
Afterwards, the fans celebrated with cheers and Rocky clapped in approval.
As unique as it was on draft day – for Rocky, a 12-year-old adolescent male orangutan who weighs in at 160 pounds, it was closer to his daily activity than you might think.
“The apes that we work with are really sophisticated about using computers. We do that every day as part of their normal lives. It’s some of the cognitive work that we do here at the zoo,” Shumaker said. “We developed a little bit of customized software, the draft pick software, that allows them to move a screen saver away and reveal the name. All we had to do was show them once how it worked and they’ve been perfect at it.”
And they continued their perfect streak all afternoon, taking snack breaks between rounds.
“They have brains that are made for learning and problem solving and the tasks we give them on the computers meet those needs,” Shumaker said. “So, it’s really good for their welfare, it’s really good for helping us to educate folks about how incredible orangutans are – and today, it’s great for helping us work with the Colts.”
The picks were broadcast live on NFL Network, which also made it a great opportunity to showcase the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center at the Indianapolis Zoo, which houses one of the largest groups of orangutans in the country.
“What the league has been able to do around the draft is cool in itself,” said Jackson. “Especially on the third day, enabling teams to highlight things that are really important to their city and that they’re really proud of.”
For Ridgeway, announcing the fourth round pick was special. Last year, he was home watching the draft as wide receiver Phillip Dorsett announced his name during the same round.
“I had my mom, my dad, just my family around. It’s a lot of anxiety, you’re very nervous. I know exactly what they’re feeling right now,” he said.
It also offered him some perspective as he read the names live on national television.
“Usually when you’re speaking up here, you may get a little nervous. But I kind of thought about somebody at home right now way more nervous than I am.”
Later, defensive tackle Henry Anderson announced picks with another orangutan, Azy, a 39-year-old fully mature male who weighs in at 250 pounds and has an arm span of nine feet.
“Colts defensive lineman Henry Anderson here, live from the Indianapolis Zoo, a nationally recognized orangutan center. With the 158th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts select…”
“Nate Hairston, cornerback, Temple.”
And like Rocky, Azy’s execution was flawless.
“He was a good teammate,” Anderson said. “Trustworthy, reliable, he’d make a good football player, I think.”
Just like working with humans, Shumaker says working with apes is mostly about relationships. And like every relationship, it starts with communication.
“They really become a part of your family,” he says. “It’s a remarkable relationship. The most important thing we do first – before we try to do anything else working with the apes, is we develop a really strong friendship first. And everything we do flows out of that friendship and that relationship that we have.”
They also value the relationship they have with the Colts.
“We are so appreciative to the Colts organization for thinking about us because it allows us to do something fun, something great, and also something meaningful – because this is spreading the word nationwide about how incredible orangutans are and how important it is to focus on their conservation in the wild.”
For more photos from the Colts draft party at the Indianapolis Zoo, click here: http://www.colts.com/photos/photo-gallery/Colts-Official-Draft-Party—Day-Three/928e22b7-220d-4b84-a377-017da36e5c5f.