For the last 15 years, the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium had abandoned its practice of pulling newborn animals from their mothers and hand-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 for the zoo.
However, zoo officials recently had to make an exception for a 4-week-old female newborn lowland gorilla who is being hand-raised by keepers due to breastfeeding issues 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 newborn. 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 newborn diapers sitting atop a pink blanket.
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. After 48 hours, keepers felt 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 newborn, who was born at about 3 pounds, has since grown to be 5½ pounds. Cassidy said the newborn did “start light” because of the 48-hour span without breastfeeding, but that hasn’t caused any significant health issues.
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; I was involved with her daily,” she said.
With other employees helping nurse the new gorilla, DuPre still checks in on her every morning to get her weight and she keeps up with her volume consumption as well. Although the new gorilla is being hand-nursed, DuPre stressed how vital it can be for the gorilla to be raised by their mother.
“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 that feeding and raising the newborn has been a collaborative effort, as the zoo’s been receiving advice from other zoos and facilities who’ve 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 infant 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’ll continued to be raised in that nursery until further notice.