We cannot seek or attain health, wealth, learning, justice or kindness in general. Action is always specific, concrete, individualized, unique.
-Benjamin Jowett


Rhonda Pietsch, the Denver Zoo's primate specialist, has found a perfect (if bizarre-sounding) solution for controlling the adult male orangutan under her care: basil oil. Following the advice of Francis Cleveland, an expert in animal aromatherapy, Pietsch found that the scent calmed down her testy primates in the winter, when they tend to be in close proximity to one another. A dab of basil oil equals no more stick fights, spitting, or poking. It turns out aromatherapy works for the primate population; it is helpful in addressing a variety of animal ills, which is why Pietsch makes the rounds every morning, offering her orangutans a rather sophisticated and unusual side order to the typical zoo breakfast fare.

Pietsch moves from animal to animal, placing different scented oils on the tips of her fingers for their consideration. The animals indicate interest with different body signals, including pushing their foreheads, lips, chins, cheeks, or arms forward to receive the aromatherapy. Sally chooses yarrow and rose to make her aging body more agile. Mias wants a dab of frankincense on his forehead, and a bit of eucalyptus above his lip to clear his allergies.

In essence, these primates are self-medicating - just as they do in the wild, where they have been observed to pick and eat certain plants that have healing properties. Both humans and primates have highly developed smell receptors in their brains, though they have become less important to us as we have evolved. For most animals, though, sense of smell remains crucial to survival.

"They are very, very smart and are able to tune in and read the body," Pietsch says. "They will refuse an oil if they don't want or need it any longer. That's how I know it is time for a change in oils. Likewise, they may take a great deal of interest in an oil and so I will offer it again to them in the afternoon."

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