'She didn’t immediately breastfeed her baby, but she was definitely watching the whole time,' said the zookeeper.
Orangutans are intelligent creatures and are said to learn everything from their mums till they are seven years old. So, when it came to Zoe, an orangutan at the Metro Richmond Zoo in Virginia, she did not know how to nurse her baby as she was orphaned at only nine months old. Zoe delivered her baby, Taavi, on December 12, 2022. After the birth, the Zoo's vet called in a zookeeper named Whitlee Turner, who is a new mother herself. She was asked to breastfeed her child Caleb in front of Zoe, hoping that she would learn from a live demonstration, according to a statement from Metro Richmond Zoo.
And Zoe did learn. Turner reached Zoe's indoor house soon after her birth. “I just had my breastfeeding bra on, and I was able to show [Zoe] everything with zero modesty. I wanted her to be able to see the whole process because orangutans don’t wear shirts. I wanted her to be able to see my breasts and see Caleb and be able to see him rooting and looking for it and the latch," shared Turner.
"With my bra down, I was very exaggerated when I put him on so that [Zoe] could see that the baby goes here. The whole time I was talking to her and pointing at her, pointing at the baby, pointing at her breasts," added Turned. "And when Caleb was latched I was showing it to her, making sure that she saw the important part." Turner said that Zoe was watching the whole process curiously. "She didn’t immediately breastfeed her baby, but she was definitely watching the whole time,” said Turner.
Less than 24 hours after showing her the process, Zoe began breastfeeding her baby. Moreover, months before Taavi was born, the zookeepers started working with Zoe to kickstart her maternal instincts. They even set up a TV inside so she could watch videos of orangutans giving birth and taking care of their young ones. She has said to have watched these videos again and again and learned from these experienced mothers, according to a press release by the Metro Richmond Zoo. That's not all. Jessica Gring, a lead zookeeper, shared that she even showed Zoe how to hold and nurse a baby by using a stuffed animal orangutan. She reportedly did these live demonstrations almost daily for months. “I would have [the stuffed animal] so it was going around my waist and around my neck just like a baby would be clinging on to [Zoe’s] side."
"I was able to grab some biscuits on the ground and pretend like I was eating them while I was holding the baby. I was able to show [Zoe] and spread [the stuffed animal’s] legs a little bit and hold them up to the front so [Zoe] would see and check it out," added Gring. "After he was born, [Zoe] immediately came over and did the exact same thing and showed me and let me look at his feet and his body. The idea is we want to be able to get a good view on body condition and overall wellness check, so she was able to do exactly mirror image of what we had shown her which was really, really exciting,” Gring said.
She also explained the importance of breastfeeding for orangutans. Gring told GoodMorningAmerica, "They'll stay with them for about eight years, because they're very slow to develop." "So they will continue to nurse upwards of eight years and then they'll continue to visit back with mom until they're about 14." She added, "Toward the end, it's not as much for the nutritional aspect but it's kind of a comforting thing. So it's a really good bonding experience to maintain the relationship with mom and baby."