When Linda Jacobs moved to Miami from Boston 32 years ago, she never expected people would come to know her as the “Orangutan Mom.”
After settling down in South Florida, Jacobs began visiting what was then known as Parrot Jungle because of her fascination with the great apes.
She talked with staff and together they arranged for her to volunteer one day a week.
That was 18 years ago. Fast-forward to 2015 and Jacobs has become a full-time volunteer at Jungle Island.
“The hard part isn’t coming to Jungle Island, it’s leaving,” said Jacobs, who donates more than 40 hours a week taking care of six orangutans.
“I really do consider myself the luckiest person in the world. To be here, in this setting, with these animals, you couldn’t ask for more.”
Developing a bond with the apes was only natural for Jacobs, who eventually became a surrogate mother to fraternal twins Peanut and Pumpkin.
She was close to both, but felt a special connection with Peanut.
“Ever since she was an infant, we just clicked,” Jacobs said.
When born, the sisters were only the third set of twins to survive being born in captivity anywhere in the world, she said.
At the age of 8, Peanut became ill and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that develops in the lymphatic system.
“When she began to go downhill, we didn’t know what it was at first, we just noticed behavioral changes, the sort of changes a mom notices in her kids,” Jacobs said.
“It’s heartbreaking to see and it’s a very helpless feeling to not know what’s wrong.”
After undergoing various chemotherapy sessions in 2012, and with the help of the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, Miami Veterinary Specialists and the Knowles Animal Clinic, Peanut was eventually cleared by her doctor and is currently in remission.
For Jungle Island’s Dr. Jason Chatfield, having Linda by his side was invaluable in saving Peanut’s life.
“It’s a pretty rare situation to have a person who literally raised these animals and knows them as good or better than her own children,” said Chatfield, vice president of zoological operations at Jungle Island.
“It came in very handy and it was a useful tool when we had any kind of decision to make. Any information is great, and Linda gave us a lot of insight as to how Peanut was doing.”
Ryan Jacobs, Linda’s son, has seen just how well his mom connects with the apes first hand.
“It’s like watching someone live their purpose. She was born to do it, she was meant to do it,” said Ryan, who would help bottle-feed and put the apes to bed.
“She really is the best mother in the world to both humans and to non-human primates.”
And for now, Jacobs has no plans of stopping.
“Miami is home, and really, home is where these orangutans are.”