Zookeeper teaches orangutan to breastfeed by example

Metro Richmond Zoo

At Metro Richmond Zoo in Virginia, a zookeeper who happened to be breastfeeding has helped a new orangutan mom learn how — via a live demonstration. This happened after the orangutan, Zoe, didn’t show appropriate maternal instincts with her first child two years ago.

On March 2, 2021, Zoe the orangutan had her first child at the zoo, Taavi, but didn’t seem to understand how to care for him. Zookeepers tried to show her how to hold and nurse her baby by demonstrating with a doll, but that didn’t work. Zoo experts think that Zoe, whose mother died when she was nine months old, had never really learned the skills necessary to be a mom.

Eventually, keepers had to step in to help the baby thrive. They made attempts to reintroduce the two, but these were unsuccessful. The care team decided to hand-raise Taavi, which initially required feedings every two hours and constant monitoring.

In this Facebook post from the time, an image shows Taavi being held in a baby carrier by a human, mimicking the primates’ mother-child relationship in the wild.

Recently, Zoe gave birth a second time. Determined to try to help her again, keepers tried something different. And this time it worked.

The new baby was born on Dec. 12, 2022. When it happened, the zoo’s vet contacted a zookeeper and new mom, Whitlee Turner, and asked her to breastfeed her own baby, Caleb, in front of Zoe. Turner agreed. She grabbed her son Caleb and they arrived at the indoor orangutan habitat not long after Zoe gave birth.

Wearing her breastfeeding bra, Turner used exaggerated movements and pointed and talked to make sure Zoe understood what she was doing. She said Zoe watched her curiously the entire time. And not long after the live demonstration, Zoe was able to successfully breastfeed her own child.

“I had a really hard time in the beginning as a new mom with my breastfeeding journey,” Turner said in a zoo press release. “[I] required a lot of guidance and help before we really figured it out. I think it was really special being able to share this with [Zoe] and help her in her journey. Whether it was an orangutan or a human, I just want to be able to help any new mom.”

This YouTube video from the zoo tells the whole story:

In the video, the zoo notes that it wasn’t just the demonstration that helped. Zookeepers worked with Zoe for months before the birth to try to “kickstart her maternal instincts.” They showed her videos of orangutan moms giving birth and caring for their young and used a stuffed orangutan to show her what to do.

Lead zookeeper Jessica Gring would hold the plush toy out and show it to Zoe, and this technique seems to have helped, since the video above shows Zoe mimicking that behavior with her own child. This has allowed the keepers to do a visual wellness check of the baby.

Orangutans are great apes native to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. They are the second largest of all primates, with a gestation of eight and a half months. Their populations suffer from poaching and deforestation; they are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. There have been just four orangutan births in Metro Richmond Zoo’s history, so this success is a big deal for the small institution.

The mom and baby have bonded and can now be seen in the orangutan house, thanks to the great work from zoo staff!

Animals, Good News, News
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About the Author
Helen Lee
Helen is a writer and editor from the Chicago area. She loves volunteering, zoos, and video games. Visit Scripps News to see more of Helen's work.

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