Zoo animals peer into future Feb. 2 to predict spring’s arrival, Super Bowl winner

January 27, 2012 - 10:05am

Jabari the hedgehog looks for his shadow, orangutans weigh Giants vs. Patriots

Predictions can be a tricky business, but Oregon Zoo animals will boldly make not one, but two prognostications Thursday, Feb. 2. At 10 a.m., Jabari the hedgehog will look for his shadow: Will it be an early spring, or should we hunker down for a long winter? Orangutans Kutai and Inji will then predict that Sunday's Super Bowl winner at 10:30 a.m.

"Punxsutawney Phil gets most of the attention, but hedgehogs are the true weather-prediction experts," said zoo director Kim Smith, who will oversee the zoo's Hedgehog Day festivities. "It was only when immigrants to the United States realized their new home didn't have hedgehogs that they turned to the groundhog. Jabari is bringing the holiday back to its origins."

Hedgehog Day isn't the zoo's only prognosticating event with a storied history: In a tradition dating back to 1996, Kutai and Inji will don T-shirts to predict the 2012 Super Bowl winner. Kutai has correctly predicted the outcome in five of the past seven Super Bowls, including the Giants' upset victory over the heavily favored Patriots in 2008 – a fact that has sparked a lot of discussion recently as the two teams gear up for a rematch. Kutai's grandmother, Inji, has picked the winners of five Super Bowls and two Civil War games.

"Keepers provide the orangs with official T-shirts from the two Super Bowl teams and let the apes choose what to do with them," Smith said. "They usually try to put on the shirts, mimicking what they've seen keepers do with clothing."

The orangs' picks for the Super Bowl winner are determined by which team's shirt they choose to wear.

Once Inji and Kutai have made their picks, the zoo's conservation team will staff a table about two types of primate food: humans' Super Bowl snacks and orangutans' diet in the wild. Visitors can learn what snacks can help protect wild orangs, and how traveling for food puts orangs in danger when they cross palm oil plantations.

Inji's ability to predict the winner of football games was discovered by chance back in 1996. A local sportscaster had seen the orangs receive clothing items as enrichment and wondered what they might do with Beavers and Ducks T-shirts prior to the teams' 100th Civil War game. Inji, the most dominant of the orangs at the time, put on an Oregon shirt, and the Ducks went on to win, 49-13.

Two years later, she was given the same challenge and again picked the winner – the Beavers this time, in a 44-41 double-overtime thriller. Still somewhat skeptical, keepers put Inji to the test in that season's Super Bowl, and she correctly chose Denver over Atlanta. Inji eventually attained a record of 6-1 in her predictions, but became less reliable once her grandson Kutai began participating.

According to senior primate keeper Dave Thomas, Kutai began inserting himself into the prediction process in 2005 and has shown he knows how to pick a winner: "While Inji's record has slipped a bit, Kutai has been very accurate."

Thomas won't speculate about whether Inji might be stepping aside to allow her grandson to shine or if he's just taking over by force.

"Kutai likes to take all the shirts from one team, so sometimes Inji's choice has been limited," Thomas conceded. "However, that worked in Inji's favor two years ago when Kutai incorrectly hoarded the Colts T-shirts."

Zookeepers are always looking for new and interesting ways to keep the animals engaged and active. Giving the orangutans T-shirts and other interesting items serves as environmental enrichment. The Oregon Zoo is internationally renowned for its environmental enrichment program, designed to keep animals mentally and physically challenged and stimulated.