Taken from his mother when he was just weeks old, Ortega grows up in a research lab run by Dr. Whitmore, a world-renowned expert in primates and language development. A series of surgeries reshape the gorilla’s tongue and palate, and insert an artificial voice box into his throat. Ortega receives intensive social, educational and language support and, at ten years old, is shown to have an IQ of 98, normal for a human being. Having exhausted all avenues of scientific research into Ortega, Dr. Whitmore devises a new study, one sure to garner plenty of interest in the scientific community and plenty of grant money from large corporations; he decides to send the young gorilla to school.
So it is arranged that Ortega will attend Grade 5 at a local elementary school, and Dr. Whitmore and his research assistant, Dr. Susan, will monitor how he does in this new environment. Though the gorilla is reluctant to leave the safety of his life with Dr. Susan, and makes that reluctance evident, he finds himself dressed in new clothes, his backpack on his back, meeting his new teacher, Miss Rutherford, outside her Grade 5 classroom.
Ortega is confronted by the curiosity, the fear and, often, the cruelty of his new schoolmates and their parents. Nasty tricks and taunting notes send the young gorilla running for the door. He also makes friends with Peter, a bright and intense kid, who has prepped for Ortega’s arrival by reading up on gorillas, and his friends Eugene and Janice, and finds himself eating lunch each day with them all in Peter’s tree fort.
As he comes to be accepted as a person in his own right by Miss Rutherford and his school friends, Ortega begins to question who he is, particularly in the eyes of Dr. Susan, his surrogate mother, and the head of the research lab, Dr. Whitmore. Is he a person, equal to though different from his human friends and handlers, or is he, as Dr. Whitmore asserts, a laboratory animal owned and entirely controlled by Project Ortega?
With his enormous appetite for fruit, his instinctive gorilla behaviours, and his preference for knuckle walking, Ortega clearly isn’t human, but he has a smart mouth, loves Dr. Susan and her mother, whom he calls Grandma, and his new friends, Peter, Eugene and Janice, and reacts time and again like any Grade 5 student. Often locked in his room in the lab and watched through a two-way mirror or videotaped, Ortega has rescued and made pets of other lab animals, a jar of fruit flies he calls the Lancaster-Stone family, Norman, a frog, and Siggy, a mouse. He is expected to walk upright because, in Dr. Whitmore’s eyes, it helps to reinforce the significance of the researcher’s accomplishments with the young gorilla, but is collared and leashed to transit the airport.
When he sabotages Dr. Whitmore’s keynote address to an important scientific conference, Ortega is informed by the furious researcher that the Project that bears his name will be cancelled, and he will be sold. However Dr. Whitmore reckons without Peter, Eugene and Janice who carry out a desperate and inspired plan to rescue the young gorilla from his locked room and hide him away where the animal control officers won’t find him.
Written by Maureen Fergus, Ortega is the story of a young gorilla who starts off as the subject of a research study into primates and language development but who ends up challenging the perceptions of his handlers, his fellow classmates and the whole community about what it means to be human. Sad and funny and, at times, frightening, Ortega is a smart, thought-provoking and absorbing story that speaks to the heart.