One of Omaha’s hairiest families is learning a tough lesson about adding a new baby to the mix: Older siblings get jealous.
The siblings in question are 7-month-old Zuri, the Henry Doorly Zoo’s newest western lowland gorilla, and her half-brother, Kgosi, who will soon turn 3.
After a period of being raised by zookeepers because of breastfeeding problems with her mother, in recent months Zuri has reintegrated with her family in the Hubbard Gorilla Valley. That has led to some pestering and roughhousing from Kgosi.
“He’s kind of like a mean big brother,” said Dennis Pate, the zoo’s director and CEO.
Sibling squabbles aside, Zuri’s transition from being hand-raised by zoo staff to her new status as one of the gang is a “wonderful story,” Pate said, because it wasn’t a guarantee.
Zuri’s mom, Bambio, was hand-reared, and so was her mother, Timu. That means that Zuri comes from a line of gorillas who didn’t develop great maternal skills, Pate said. When Zuri’s grandmother had her first two babies, she neglected them entirely.
“Neither one is mom of the year here,” Pate said of Timu and Bambio.
So before Zuri was even born, zoo staff began working with Bambio to teach her how to raise her baby. They used stuffed dolls and a reward system to show her how to hold her offspring while breastfeeding.
But Bambio held Zuri too low on her body, preventing the little one from latching on. That’s when human intervention was required.
A team of staff members and volunteers worked 24 hours a day for months to feed and care for Zuri. Workers wore a hair-covered suit to simulate a gorilla’s body while Zuri fed.
Christine Dupre, the zoo’s great ape supervisor, said staff members worked 3,500 hours from May to October to provide round-the-clock care. An additional 1,700 volunteer hours were required after-hours.
Zookeepers did their work in a room not far from Bambio, where she could see everything that was going on.
Slowly, Bambio came around to caring for Zuri. Zuri is still being fed from bottles, but her mother has learned to pick her up and bring her to caretakers to eat.
Zuri eventually got acquainted with her family, too: father Tambo, Timu, Bambio and Kgosi, all of whom live in the zoo’s gorilla complex.
“It didn’t come without obstacles; it was far from perfect,” Dupre said. “It’s gotten better all the time.”
Each day, Zuri consumes four bottles of Enfamil, the human infant formula. She also snacks on produce such as kale, romaine lettuce and celery. When she turns 1, she will switch to vitamin D milk.
As for Zuri and Kgosi’s relationship? For now, little sister is turning to her parents for protection.
Said Pate: “What little Zuri learned was that if she hung a little closer to Dad, or a little closer to Mom, that (Kgosi) would leave her alone because they wouldn’t put up with it.”