Chain-Smoking Orangutan Kicks the Habit

By Will Godfrey 09/13/11

A Malaysian ape is rescued from a bad zoo after tourists tossed it habit-forming lit cigarettes.

Fuming ape now faces cold turkey. Photo via

A great ape from Malaysia who apparently became addicted to nicotine—after she was "enabled" by unscrupulous visitors who threw lit cigarettes into her enclosure—is now kicking the habit under the supervision of government authorities. Shirley, an orangutan who is an estimated 20 years old, was removed from a state-run zoo in Johor along with several other animals last week, because of poor living conditions. Her new keepers favor total abstinence over a harm-reduction approach. Ahmad Azhar Mohammed, director of Melaka Zoo where Shirley is being temporarily quarantined, said she won't be given any more cigarettes: "Smoking is not normal behavior for orangutans." He told The Associated Press, "I would say she is not addicted ... but she might have formed a habit after mimicking human beings who were smoking around her." However, British conservation activist group Nature Alert, which first raised the question of Shirley's welfare to Malaysian authorities earlier this year, noted human-like withdrawal symptoms when the orangutan was deprived of cigarettes—at times she displayed severe mood swings or drowsiness, or seemed "very agitated." Shirley is far from the first primate to suffer from a smoking habit inflicted by humans. Smoking chimpanzees, for example, are widely reported at zoos in countries such as Russia and South Africa. One South African chimp called Charlie got so hooked that he began deviously hiding his stash from his handlers—a practice sometimes observed in the world of his close relatives. Once Shirley's detox is complete, she can look forward to a healthier future at a Borneo wildlife center.

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Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of TheFix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others. He is currently the Executive Director at FILTER. You can find Will on Linkedin and Twitter.