Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Ellen Feld is talking with Joyce Major, author of The Orangutan Rescue Gang.
FQ: Your author biography notes that you “stopped everything” you were doing to get involved in volunteering. Would you tell our readers what you were doing in your “previous life” and what happened to cause you to stop everything?
MAJOR: I was successfully selling real estate in Seattle, playing squash, living on my houseboat and generally doing okay. However, when I was taking a hike up a steep trail, a vision came to me. I could travel the world not as a tourist but as a volunteer. I’ll never know where that insight came from. Was the air too thin? Was I getting so tired that I was having a vision? Or was this hike of methodical steps reaching me in a way that living a busy life didn’t make time for? I realized when I came down off that mountain that both of my sons would graduate from college in two years, and I would have time to take this trip of a lifetime. The idea of stopping everything and heading out into the world became a dream that I could make come true. After my yearlong trip, I continued to travel each year for a month at a time until Bali, when I stayed 6 months.
FQ: Your first book, Smiling at the World, is about your yearlong “quest for adventure and love.” Would you tell us a few of the highlights from that year of travel?
MAJOR: Can you imagine living a month in eleven different countries and never coming home for a year? Can you picture living someplace where you don’t know the language or the culture or the other people? It was a challenge for certain to adjust and be open to change. I volunteered for a month at a time in ten countries and two months in an eleventh.
I volunteered in Ireland with a weekly newspaper though I had never written an article in my life. The first article that got published took my breath away because it seemed impossible and yet, it was true. I wrote about the Green Party convention, and I was lucky enough to interview various people. A combination of nerves and insecurities attacked me, but I managed to write it. The rest of my two months there became a wonderful experience learning about their culture and writing articles.
In China teaching English at a high school, I would write the lyrics to Beatles songs and then have the kids practice saying the lyrics. One class (and these classes had 70 kids each) asked me if I would sing my favorite for them. Imagine. It took all my gumption but for the first time ever, I sang my favorite song to a group of students in China. Yes, it made me tear up.
I also had a moment with a wild baboon as you can see in the photo. He decided after giving me a hug, that he should groom me. He began grooming my back and then used his little fingers to go through my hair. You can’t imagine how surprised I was or how delicate his little fingers were as they went through my hair.
And the last highlight was on an emotional level. Each country, each project that I went to had different rules, a different tone, and yet, they all welcomed my help, my questions, my humor and I felt accepted for who I was. It shocked me to understand that all around the world I could fit in and I could help, and we could all laugh together.
FQ: You have done volunteer work with monkeys, kangaroos, elephants, lions, and baboons. Would you share a few of your most memorable experiences with our readers?
MAJOR: What could be better than helping wildlife recover from abuse? I have fabulous memories from each of the sanctuaries in England, Australia, Thailand, and South Africa. Standouts were with the lion cubs roughing them up, having them chase me, feeding them with a baby bottle and then having them fall asleep in my arms. Sigh...Can you imagine how sweet and soft they are? But if we played too rough, those claws could do some damage. We were cautious but they were irresistible.
The Elephant Nature Park in Thailand gave me one of my scariest experiences when we were walking an elephant to the sanctuary after it had been to the vet to have its wounds treated from abuse. We each fed him a chunk of watermelon or other fruit to encourage him to keep walking up the hill. It was all good, right? Wrong. Suddenly, when I went to hand him the fruit, he got scared, took his trunk and slammed it into my chest. The impact knocked me off my feet and I flew 15’ in the air landing on my bum. Shocked and disoriented, I didn’t know what had happened. Luckily, I wasn’t hurt but that lesson was a good one for all of us. These elephants had been abused and they were wild. It was important for us to know they were not predictable, and they were not pets.
FQ: Did the idea for The Orangutan Rescue Gang develop while you were working with the Sumatran Orangutan Society or had the idea been in your thoughts for a while?
MAJOR: The idea for the book must have been cooking in my imagination for years after I volunteered to save orangutans. Part of my work there was to write conservation articles for different magazines but writing a book never came up. After I left, I carried the issues with me still wishing there was a way to save orangutans from extinction. But it was a couple of years after I had volunteered in Indonesia that I decided to write the book.
FQ: In your story, Jaylynn makes an almost instant connection with Little O, the baby orangutan. I found their way of communicating, via colors, very interesting. Would you tell our readers a bit about how this works?
MAJOR: I have a friend who can remember number chains and is very good in math. She explained that all numbers are colors to her, and she can remember their patterns because of the color pattern. I found that rather amazing when she told me. I have another friend who has learned how to communicate with dogs, cats and horses. I’m not sure how she does that, but I decided maybe combining the possibility with color would be possible for Jaylynn and Little O. I wanted her to feel what he was feeling, and color became the tool.
FQ: Another vehicle to move the story along was the use of dreams. Jaylynn, and the reader, discovers much about Little O and the plight of orangutans via her dreams. Were the dreams meant as a way for Little O to communicate with Jaylynn?
MAJOR: Adding dreams as a method of communication, meant adding something unexplainable, magical to a book for kids. I love listening to children’s dreams and wanted Jaylynn’s dreams to help her gather her own strength. It felt like using that environment...the land of dreams...would be easy for kids to understand.
FQ: Palm Oil is part of the problem with the deforestation of the rainforests. What should shoppers look for when buying products that contain palm oil?
MAJOR: The problem with palm oil is that it has many different names besides just palm oil. It is also called “palmitate” amongst about 30 different names. It is in a wide range of products including cookies, Coke, crackers, breads, ice cream, chips, chocolates, Snickers and many more snacks. You’ll want to check shampoo, soaps, makeup and other cosmetic products, too. Palm oil has become a cheaper product for companies to use with no regard to how it is grown or that it involves destroying the rainforest.
FQ: While the trade in baby orangutans is illegal, your book shows that it continues. Are orangutans still sold in public markets, and if so, do the police attempt to shut them down?
MAJOR: Yes, baby orangutans are still sold illegally in markets. It’s very sad. When the people are caught, police arrest them and apprehend the babies and return them to sanctuaries where hopefully they will be trained and returned to the rainforest.
FQ: Tell us a bit about the Sumatran Orangutan Society and how people in the United States can get involved.
MAJOR: The Sumatran Orangutan Society is going strong in both the U.K. where it was started and on the island of Sumatra, where orangutans live. SOS in the UK fundraise to support their conservation efforts, they buy land to act as a reserve for the orangutans and to prevent palm oil plantations from buying the property, and they educate local kids about orangutan conservation. They’ve been working on this issue a long time with a solid program. If you’d like to help them, you could go to their website https://www.orangutans-sos.org that is divided into The Crisis, The Solution, Take Action and also Shop. If you work your way through those sections, I’m sure you’ll find a way to help SOS Take Action. Every little positive thing contributes to the big picture-saving orangutans from extinction. And everyone of us can do something to save the rainforests and save orangutans.