TOPEKA (KSNT) – Tori Mason was looking through the orangutan enclosure at the Topeka Zoo when she spotted a pile of reddish-brown material. Thinking it was some shredded burlap, she was surprised to discover a baby instead.
Mason, who was working her first job out of Topeka West High School as a zookeeper at the Topeka Zoo, was the first to discover the newborn orangutan Rudy on Nov. 23, 1985. The two would go on to form a bond that is still going strong today.
Rudy’s story at the Topeka Zoo is a long one. Since being born at the zoo, she has gone on to become a mother to three orangutans: Rayma in 2005, Bumi in 2013 and Udara in 2022. Rudy has even tried predicting the future on more than one occasion.
In a KSNT 27 News exclusive, Mason talked about her time at the zoo and her special bond with Rudy that began to form soon after her birth.
“I was an animal keeper from 1983 to 1995 and during part of that time I worked in the discovery ape building when we had apes and gorillas,” Mason said. “I happened to be the keeper on duty the day Rudy was born in 1985.”
Mason said the zoo staff monitored Rudy closely as they were afraid her mother, Rusty, wouldn’t be able to take care of her properly. When staff noticed that Rudy was being left without any care from Rusty, they knew the mother’s natural instincts weren’t kicking in.
“We knew we would be hand-raising a baby,” Mason said.
Zoo staff didn’t have long to wait before another resident orangutan gave birth to a male named Joseph three months after Rudy was born. Like with Rudy, Joseph’s mother didn’t display the proper mothering instincts and staff were forced to step in to make sure the baby survived. This presented Mason and others at the zoo with a unique challenge: raising two baby orangutans without them imprinting on humans.
“The goal was to reintroduce them into the group so they could be orangutans and not imprint on people, so they would have offspring of their own,” Mason said. “That was our ultimate goal.”
Mason said the staff made a vest of fur to give the two babies practice holding onto them, similar to how orangutan young grow up in the wild, and help them develop the strength they’d need to survive with the other orangutans. The Topeka Zoo reached out to other zoos for tips on how best to raise baby orangutans.
“We were just hoping for the right outcome, which we wouldn’t know for several years down the road,” Mason said.
Fast forward almost 40 years to 2023, Mason now works at the Nashville Zoo more than 600 miles away. She started work there in 1995 and now serves as a historic site manager, taking a break from the more labor-intensive work involved with taking care of animals directly as a zookeeper.
“I do miss that relationship with the animals,” Mason said. “That trust, that bond you develop.”
However, Mason’s story with Rudy isn’t over yet. Since she still has family in the Topeka area, Mason likes to return to her hometown to visit. In May, she even made a stop at the Topeka Zoo, marking all of the progress that has taken place there since her time as a zookeeper.
While Mason said she enjoyed seeing how far the zoo has come over the years as she toured her old stomping grounds, she had to make a stop at the orangutan exhibit to see Rudy.
“All the feelings,” Mason said, when she saw Rudy again. “I always have enjoyed the fact that any time I’ve went back and visited the zoo, Rudy’s always recognized me. That’s the special bond you make with an animal. I’ve been gone for 28 years now, and she still recognizes and remembers me, and that just shows so much about how intelligent they are.”
Despite decades passing, Rudy and Mason still share that special bond born at the Topeka Zoo so many years ago.
“Rudy saw me and immediately made her way over to the viewing window,” Mason said. “She grabbed a lid and sat right in front of me for 20 minutes and introduced me to her baby and it was just a wonderful moment.”
Looking back, Mason is proud of how Rudy has turned out. Seeing Rudy flourish and raise a family of her own is one of Mason’s favorite parts about visiting the Topeka Zoo.
“That is an amazing feeling,” Mason said. “We had a big team of people that helped raise the orangutans. We wouldn’t know for many years if what we were doing at that time was the best thing for Rudy. Knowing she’s become an excellent mother not once, not twice but three times tells me we did things right. I’m just really proud of the work that we did.”
While Mason is happy working at the Nashville Zoo, she will always carry a special connection to Topeka.
“I’m just really proud to have been part of the Topeka Zoo at that time,” Mason said. “It was the start of my career as a zookeeper. It was a great stepping stone.”
You can visit Rudy, her child and the other orangutans at the Topeka Zoo. It is located at 635 SW Gage Blvd. and is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. throughout the week.