For the last 15 years, the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium had abandoned its practice of pulling newborn animals from their mothers and raising them in a nursery.
“Now we always try to have babies raised by their mom in their group,” said Dan Cassidy, vice president of animal management at the zoo.
But zoo officials recently had to make an exception for a now 4-week-old female lowland gorilla who is being hand-raised by zookeepers because of breastfeeding problems with the mother, 15-year-old first-time parent Bambio.
Currently unnamed, the newborn was unveiled to the public for the first time Friday.
To simulate being fed by her mother, animal care staffers wear a hairy vest when feeding the gorilla. Typically, a newborn holds on to the mother’s hair to nurse.
The nursery simulates the rest of the Hubbard gorilla living space. It’s clad with branches, ropes to swing from and even small tires to throw.
For its newest resident, it also has a table with diapers sitting atop a pink blanket.
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Zoo officials said that despite Bambio being attentive when holding her new child, the baby was unable to successfully nurse from her mother.
“Everything looked really good at first,” Cassidy said Friday. “She was holding the baby, and the only problem is she was holding it down low. She wasn’t holding it up where the baby could nurse.”
After Bambio gave birth, the zoo put keepers on 24-hour watch and gave Bambio “the opportunity to do what nature tells her to do,” Cassidy said.
But after 48 hours, zookeepers felt that they needed to intervene. They immobilized Bambio, hoping to give her and the newborn a chance to learn how to breastfeed.
“That just didn’t happen,” Cassidy said.
Zoo staff put the infant on a regimen of bottle-feeding every three hours.
The gorilla, which was born at about 3 pounds, has since grown to 5½ pounds. Cassidy said that the newborn did “start light” because of the 48-hour span without breastfeeding but that hasn’t caused any significant health problems.
Christine DuPre, the zoo’s great ape supervisor, was the first to wear the vest.
“She was four days old when we pulled her, and I stayed with her the first week,” she said. “I was involved with her daily.”
Other employees are helping bottle-feed the new gorilla, and DuPre still checks in on the baby gorilla every morning to get her weight and to monitor her consumption as well.
Although the new gorilla is being bottle-fed, DuPre stressed how vital it can be for baby gorillas to be raised by their mothers.
“If their mother raised them, they do a whole lot better, but if they’re hand-raised and you don’t get them into a normal family setting, they don’t learn that (social) experience,” she said.
Cassidy and DuPre both said feeding and caring for the newborn has been a collaborative effort, as the zoo has been receiving advice from other zoos and facilities that have dealt with similar situations. Cassidy also echoed DuPre’s statement about the importance of the gorilla’s social experience.
“The hope is to keep her familiar with gorillas so that she always knows she’s a gorilla,” Cassidy said. “She always hears and sees and smells gorilla, so when she grows up that she’ll know she’s a gorilla.”
The animal was born on May 5, and her father, 24-year-old Tambo, also fathered Kgosi, who was born in January 2017. This is the ninth gorilla born at the zoo.
Zoo visitors will be able to see Omaha’s newest gorilla in the nursery area in the Hubbard Gorilla Valley during normal zoo hours. She will continue to be raised in that nursery until further notice.